JIHAD, INTELLIGENCE & 9-11

The “Big Wedding” and Its Sinister Offspring

Book Review:

The Big Wedding: 9-11, The Whistle Blowers and the Cover-Up
by Sander Hicks
VoxPop, New York, 2005

by A. Kronstadt, The Shadow

In the months after the horrific events of September 11, 2001, American society experienced an eclipse of reason, during which George W. Bush was given a blank check to transform government in his own image. Abominations like the USA PATRIOT Act went through Congress with no more than a whimper of meek opposition. It would have been considered positively unpatriotic to question whether putting the entire emergency management system under the hegemony of the Department of Homeland Security bureaucracy was really a good idea. It was not until the governmental fiasco in the wake of Hurricane Katrina that this question was finally answered. Only now are people beginning to realize that in the days, indeed in the hours after the World Trade Center was destroyed, certain completely unproven notions were imprinted upon our minds. (I use the word “imprinted” in the same sense that scientists use it in describing how experiences of baby animals determine their behavior for life.) For a little while there, the horror of September 11 and the deliberately manipulated imagery reduced the American populace to the status of infants—unable to comprehend, picking up the concepts, the language itself, from the grownups, those in power.

One hope for getting Americans out of their post 9-11 trance is that a large number of independently-produced and published documentaries and books are being generated by dedicated and patriotic researchers and investigators that reveal more truth behind the events of September 11, 2001. One such book is The Big Wedding: 9-11, The Whistle Blowers, and The Cover-Up, authored by Brooklyn-based investigative journalist Sander Hicks. The title of this engrossing work is based on a code-word alleged to have been used by some of the 9-11 terrorists referring to the attack, but which could also be interpreted as referring to the conjugal bliss that the U.S. government has enjoyed with Islamic fundamentalism.

In The Big Wedding, Hicks develops a thesis, based on interviews with ex-intelligence operatives, many of whom were involved in, or in close proximity to “black ops,” i.e., covert criminal operations carried out by government agents. Hicks’ informants in The Big Wedding are a rogue’s gallery that includes a diamond smuggler, pedophile, and Egyptian double agent. These unsavory characters provide Hicks with information that he weaves into a story where there are no boundaries between the Pakistani intelligence service (ISI), US intelligence, and Islamic fundamentalists, perhaps including those involved with the 9-11 attacks. Hicks bases many of his contentions on information that is common knowledge.

The marriage between these forces was brokered by members of the Reagan administration to counter the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s. Pakistan had always been a good Cold War ally of the US and our enemies, the Soviets, were close to Pakistan’s arch-enemy India. Pakistani intelligence helped create and later served as a partner to the ultra-orthodox Islamic fundamentalist Taliban militia, at the behest of the US. The Afghan Mujahideen rebels, precursors to the Taliban, fought against a succession of secular, pro-Soviet regimes in Afghanistan, and were joined by foreign forces, including Osama bin-Laden and other Saudis. [Years of infighting after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 led to the Taliban taking power in 1996—Ed.]

Financial backing for the Mujahideen was funneled in through front companies of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), a Pakistan-based institution originally touted as a source of capital for poorer nations, but which evolved into a kind of state-within-a-state in Pakistan, heavily overlapping with high-ranking personnel with the ISI. BCCI was mentioned as a link between the Bush and bin Laden families in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9-11, which showed that Bush crony James Bath acted as an intermediary for money transfers between Saudi moguls, including [Osama’s late half-brother] Salem bin-Laden, and some Bush enterprises, via BCCI majority shareholder Sheik Khalid bin Mafouz. But Hicks points out that BCCI was also an instrument used by US and Pakistani intelligence agents to hook up deals with arms merchants and supply the Afghan Mujahideen with weapons to fight the Soviets.

Although BCCI collapsed in the early 1990s, the basic infrastructure of money laundering and arms dealing created by the US and Pakistan to aid the Islamic fundamentalist cause in Afghanistan has continued to exist, and Hicks contends that it was this infrastructure that financed the 9-11 attacks. As evidence for this, Hicks points to a key event on Oct. 9, 2001, that the US media failed to mention, but reported by the Times of India and Agence Presse France, whereby a middleman, acting on behalf of Pakistani intelligence chief General Mahmood Ahmad, wired $100,000 to purported 9-11 terrorist ringleader Mohammed Atta the day before the September 11 attacks. Ahmad was dismissed from his post as the head of the ISI in October 2001, due to his alleged ties to the Taliban and Pakistani Islamist groups.

Ahmad’s dismissal came at a time when Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf had publicly renounced his government’s past links to the Taliban and pledged Pakistan’s support for Bush’s War on Terrorism. One could speculate whether or not the Times of India report on the ISI chief’s role in 9-11 was a piece of Indian propaganda, but the links between US intelligence, the ISI, and Islamists in Pakistan and Afghanistan are incontrovertible common knowledge.

The Big Wedding includes an interview with sleazy diamond merchant turned FBI informant Randy Glass, who says that, in June of 1999, he participated in a sting operation that involved meeting Pakistani arms dealer R.G. Abbas at the Tribeca Grill, a pricey New York restaurant owned by actor Robert De Niro, a few blocks from the World Trade Center. According to Glass, also at this meeting was Diaa Mohsen, an Egyptian arms dealer who had introduced Glass to a number of key terror figures who Mohsen knew on a business level. Subjects discussed at the Tribeca meeting included sales of anti-aircraft missiles and heavy water which Pakistani nuclear weapons researchers wanted in order to manufacture plutonium. However, at a certain point in the conversation, Glass says, Abbas pointed to the Twin Towers and told him: “Those towers are coming down.” Glass states that he tried desperately to inform his FBI handlers and later, Senator Bob Graham, about the plot he had gotten wind of, but the information was ignored, if not actively suppressed. The sting operation, called Operation Diamondback, concluded in June 2001, with Mohsen and a few others convicted on several counts of money laundering and violation of arms export laws. Mohsen was sentenced to only 30 months, though he violated Federal anti-terrorism laws and should have received a much stiffer penalty.

Another figure in The Big Wedding is Delmart Vreeland, who had worked as a spy for the Office of Naval Intelligence and, while in jail in Canada in the summer of 2001, prepared a series of notes describing potential terrorist targets of which he had knowledge, demanding to have them passed on to U.S. and Canadian authorities. Vreeland claims to have run across a document passing through Russian intelligence circles, stating that there would be an attack on the World Trade Center in September 2001. Hicks includes evidence to vouch for Vreeland’s intelligence credentials, but unfortunately, Vreeland comes across as being crazy. Hicks does not deny that many of his informants are so, and indeed out-and-out criminals—but these are the most suitable types for the “black ops,” in which they were able to pick up information on the most nefarious acts of the United States government. Hicks told The Shadow: “Intelligence agents can out-criminalize criminals. There are no archbishops in espionage. You don’t have to like these people, you just have to find corroboration.”

One of Hicks’ intellectual precursors in contending that double agents working for the both United States government and Islamic fundamentalist forces were at the bottom of the September 11 attacks is Daniel Hopsicker, author of Welcome to Terrorland: Mohammed Atta and the 9/11 Coverup in Florida. In The Big Wedding, Hicks focuses closely on Hopsicker’s research regarding Huffman Aviation and its training school in Venice, Florida. Three of the four supposed 9-11 pilots learned to fly at Venice Municipal Airport, where Huffman is based, and a fourth trained at the neighboring Florida Flight Training Center. In Welcome to Terrorland, Hopsicker outlined the role of Huffman’s owner Wally Hilliard in making the aviation company’s Venice airfields available as resources for government-sponsored drug dealing, which allowed the Mujahedeen to remain self-sufficient.

Hopsicker paints a picture of Mohammed Atta when he was at Huffman in Venice and in the nearby Florida Keys, that is a little different from the devoted true believer who appears in the 9-11 Commission report. Atta comes across as a cynical carouser who loved alcohol and parties, and seems to fit the profile shared by a number of Egyptian double agents that have simultaneously served the interests of Western intelligence and Islamic fundamentalism. Hicks compares Hopsicker’s Atta with Emad Salem, the Egyptian double agent who acted as a government informant and instigator in connection with the World Trade Center bombing in 1993.

In The Big Wedding, Hicks lambastes the 9-11 Commission, which he describes as a group of ten Washington insiders, and its report, which he accuses of ignoring anomalies, such as the fact that the 9-11 attacks took place on a day when there were three large-scale air-defense drills in progress, immobilizing any Air Force resources that might have responded effectively to the incidents. The indisputable fact that this “stand-down” was in progress on 9-11 has become a key piece of evidence for 9-11 skeptics, whether they be of the “they let it happen” or the “they made it happen” school of thought.

In addition to his journalism, Sander Hicks is among the pioneers of a nascent 9-11 Truth Movement. Although this effort unites independent thinkers of the left, right, and center, its members share a common distrust of the official conspiracy theory, whereby “the enemy” attacked America just because they hate our freedom. Another pioneer of this movement is Nicholas Levis, a coordinator of the 2006 Summer of Truth campaign in New York. Levis and Hicks, as well as the many thousands of Americans who have become inquisitive about the real sequence of events that led to the events of September 11, share a common distrust of the motives of the US government, not just about its competence.

Levis told The Shadow: “I have come to the conclusion that this was an orchestrated event, that there was facilitation within the US government; even though they may have used found elements, namely the Islamic fundamentalists, I don’t buy incompetence when it is this persistent. Bush, Rumsfeld, [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] General [Richard] Myers and General [Montague] Winfield [of the National Military Command Center] all found reasons not to be active on this day. Then there was [Strategic Command chief] Admiral [Richard] Mies, who was running the overall set of air defense war games under the umbrella of Global Guardian. Some of these exercises, like Vigilant Guardian and Vigilant Warrior, appear to have used the scenario of multiple domestic hijackings and crash bombings, and this on the day when it actually happened. The evidence indicates that all of this was deliberately intended to confuse a response. The inaction by the head men in the military chain of command indicates intent.” Levis added: “When the old Iran Contra crew is back in power after a stolen election, what do you expect? They committed all of these kinds of crimes already in the ’80s, but they needed an enabling event before Americans would support multiple invasions and the transformations we’ve seen since September 11.”

On the subject of motive, Sander Hicks told The Shadow: “If you want to know why, look at the statements published by the Project for the New American Century in 2000.” PNAC is the neoconservative Washington think tank founded in 1997 by William Kristol, which includes as members Richard Armitage, Jeb Bush, Dick Cheney, Lewis Libby, Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz. In 2000, PNAC issued a position paper titled “Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century,” which includes the following ominous line, referring to the difficulty of implementing their right-wing agenda: “…the process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event, like a new Pearl Harbor.” The 9-11 Truth Movement people are quick to interpret the PNAC document’s oddly tacked-on phrase “a new Pearl Harbor” as a prefiguration of 9-11.

Two things are certain. First, that the “new Pearl Harbor” did indeed happen on September 11, 2001. Second, that Bush used the horrific events of that day to justify and blunt the opposition to the subsequent US invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. More and more people in America are coming to the conclusion that this cannot be a coincidence. The 9-11 Truth Movement, whose foundations are being laid by people like Hicks, Levis, and others (including investigators at The Shadow), is united by incontrovertible evidence that some in government had the intention and ability to arrange an incident that would turn the public’s head just long enough to let them achieve their stated and published goals. Those of us who have seen the first threads of the “big lie” come loose have a responsibility to unravel the remainder of this fabric of deceit and to convince people to take political action.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sander Hicks is now running for governor of New York: As he explained to the SHADOW: “I’m running for governor because most New York State folks are progressive, and neither party represents that. Most New Yorkers are pro-peace and anti-death penalty, but [NYS Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Elliot] Spitzer was rabidly pro-Iraq invasion, and he’s pro-death penalty. He ignored a 2004 poll that showed 66% of the state wanted him to investigate all the anomalies around 9-11. Not listening to a majority is grounds for immediate termination of his public office. Spitzer has got to go.”

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This story originally appeared in the Summer 2006 edition of The Shadow
http://www.shadowpress.org

RESOURCES:

9-11 Truth
http://www.911Truth.org

Let’s Roll 9-11
http://www.letsroll911.org

Total 9-11 Info
http://www.total911.info

Summer of Truth
http://www.summeroftruth.org

Sander Hicks website
http://www.sanderhicks.com

“India Accuses Ex Pakistan Spy Chief Of Links to US Attacker: Report,”
AFP, Oct. 12, 2001, online at Bill St. Clair’s 9-11 Timeline
http://billstclair.com/911timeline/2001/afp101001.html

“Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century,”
Project for the New American Century, 2000
http://newamericancentury.org/RebuildingAmericasDefenses.pdf

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Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Sept. 1, 2006
Reprinting permissible with attribution

Continue ReadingJIHAD, INTELLIGENCE & 9-11 

ABU MUSAB AL ZARQAWI: THE MAKING OF THE MYTH

BOOK REVIEW:

INSURGENT IRAQ: AL ZARQAWI AND THE NEW GENERATION
by Loretta Napoloeoni
Seven Stories Press, New York, 2005

by Chesley Hicks

Published before Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s death, Insurgent Iraq, by Italian scholar-author Loretta Napoleoni, is an information-heavy treatise that traces the path that the iconic Islamic militant took from his childhood slum of Zarqa, Jordan, through a dense and evolving web of Muslim militancy and Middle Eastern politics, to modern-day occupied Iraq. Following al Zarqawi’s singular transformation from petty criminal to larger-than-life terrorist leader, Napoleoni demonstrates the broad ways that myth, as spun in both the East and West to suit religious ideologies and political agendas, has overwritten history to create a new, convoluted global reality.

Napoleoni’s unraveling of the myth begins in Zarqa, where al-Zarqawi was born Ahmad Fadel al-Khalayash, in 1966, to a family of Bedouin heritage. He was raised with little education in a ghetto that the author describes as being caught in a discordant clash between traditional, tribal values and rapidly developing Arab-Western consumerism. This was during the years when Jordan accepted a huge influx of Palestinian refugees from the Israeli conflict, creating a friction that, Napoleoni says, arose from the “speed with which the Palestinian diaspora tore into the Bedouin way of life.”

Against details of the larger geo-political shifts happening at the time, Napoleoni traces Zarqawi’s course as a discontent teenager; he drops out of school, joins a gang, and is imprisoned for minor crimes.

Prisons in the Middle East, Napoleoni describes, turn an already restless underclass into a captive audience that is ripe for indoctrination. “In Zarqa, as across the Arab world,” she writes, “the networks of petty crime and of revolutionary Islam constantly criss-crossed, especially in prison; both existed on the margins of Arab society, constituting a web of illegality.”

In the 1970s, the mounting Islamic rebellion questioned the legitimacy of the region’s Arab regimes. Religious leaders challenged ruling authorities, loaning general criminality against the state a religious-political dimension. “The illegitimacy of the Arab state blurred the boundaries between crime and insurrection,” Napoleoni writes.

When al-Zarqawi first entered prison he was not politicized. But in prisons, malcontents found shared purpose with political dissidents. Throughout the book, Napoleoni offers many examples of Islamist leaders who used prison time to hone their focus, study, write tomes, and issue edicts. Over the course of his various incarcerations, prison radicalized al Zarqawi and set him in pursuit of jihad as he romantically envisioned it during the early days of the Mujahedeen-Soviet war.

During his lifetime journey from Jordan to Iraq, al-Zarqawi underwent several transformations, each reflecting the times. The author describes how most Muslims grow up amid violence, a condition perpetuated by the failure of local governments, entrenched corruption, and war. In the beginning, al-Zarqawi found a religious focus for his youthful alienation and angst, but as the geopolitical backdrop changed, his religious focus adopted more political tones. He changed his name several times: from his birth name to “The Stranger”, to Abu Muhammad al Gharib, and, finally, to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. During this conversion, Zarqawi longed to join the Afghan Mujahedeen, but never made it. But he became, along with the Islam he was immersed in, ever more politicized.

Eventually Zarqawi made it to Afghanistan, but, as Napoleoni writes, “Once again, al Gharib [the named he’d taken at the time] missed the opportunity to become a warrior.” He wanted to join the Mujahedeen, but by the time he reached Afghanistan, the Soviets were long gone and battle was Muslims fighting Muslims—the Taliban versus the Northern Alliance—which was very different from fighting the Soviets, an infidel invader. Nonetheless, he offered his services to the Taliban and established training camps.

By this point, according to Naopleoni, Zarqawi had became a charismatic but small-time leader. He found fertile ground among Afghanistan’s discontent population, who were often just looking for a purpose in a repressed, violent environment. This is a familiar refrain in the book: relationships of convoluted convenience, whereby belligerents find new, nearby enemies to fight, and ideologues find new allies within nearby lost populations to convert.

Eventually Zarqawi’s parochial vision of jihad encountered the global battle against the West, which was taking figurehead shape in Osama bin Laden.

Napoleoni says that al Zarqawi was, at first, not interested in pursuing al Qaeda’s global jihad. “The nature of the modern jihad appears ambiguous. Is it a counter-Crusade, an anticolonial fight, or a revolution?” she writes. “This dilemma of definition is at the heart of modern Islam and at the core of the ideological differences that characterized the relationship between Osama bin Laden and Abu Mo’sab al Zarqawi.” Zarqawi’s interests lay largely with confronting local Muslim leadership to protect Islam. But in his pursuit of this local and limited jihad, al-Zaqawi entered into an arena where the vagaries and vastly manipulated interpretation of jihad spread both deep and wide.

“From the outset, the dilemma of the Islamist insurgency is strategic. It boils down to the question of how to fight two enemies: one near and the other remote. The former is represented by the Muslim regimes, illegitimate because they originate from military coups or because they are takfir, corrupt, and repressive. The distant enemy is the West, which is represented in the Middle East by the state of Israel, the occupying power in Palestine and the holy sites. [T]oday the distant enemy includes Coalition forces in Iraq. Western countries are equally responsible for backing infidel Arab and Muslim regimes, such as Mubarak’s Egypt, the House of Saud, and democratic Iraq.”

Naopleoni writes that this dilemma plagued the jihadist movement until 2003, when the Coalition invasion merged both the domestic and international fronts in Iraq. Before that, the author portrays a wide rift existing between the privileged, upper-class, global attack machinations of bin Laden’s al Qaeda and Zarqawi’s more local-minded jihadist pursuit.

In the introduction to Insurgent Iraq, Napoleoni writes, “Islamist terrorism is a weak enemy. It can be defeated by the instruments of democracy. New technology makes it difficult to suppress its propaganda, but meaningful engagement with moderate Muslims and continued commitment to the rule of law will greatly degrade the appeal of the Islamist jihad among European [Muslim] youth. To depart from these methods is to threaten our greatest achievement: societies ruled by justice and freedom.” Taking her at her word, she believes in the creed and greater practice of Western democracy. She concludes her book on a similar, hopeful note. But, first, she outlines just how badly things can go wrong with the system.

Colin Powell’s speech on February 5, 2003 changed things for al-Zarqawi. “Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network,” Napoleni quotes Powell, “headed by Abu Mos’ab al Zarqawi, an associate collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al Queda lieutenant.” Powell portrayed Zarqawi as the go-between linking Saddam and Osama, and also linked him to a supposed ricin terrorist plot in England. Napoleoni writes that all these claims have been pretty decisively disproven.

This is a central point in Insurgent Iraq. According to Napoleoni, prior to Powell’s proclamation, Zarqawi had been a minor force in Middle Eastern dissent. But in seeking a new demon to further justify its plan to attack Iraq, the Bush administration conjured a fulcrum for connecting Iraq to terrorism, and alighted upon Zarqawi. The media attention subsequently paid him gave al-Zarqawi more clout than he’d ever had.

And as al-Zarqawi really did find his way into Iraq, the Western-conjured grandeur around him provided a rallying point that galvanized legions searching for a leader. Even though he wasn’t yet an al-Qaeda chief, this attention, Napoleoni writes, “helped keep al Queda in the limelight.”

Zarqawi and bin Laden maybe did or maybe did not meet, but Zarqawi in any case harnessed the mantle of al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq—despite the fact that his original agenda had so greatly differed from al-Qaeda’s.

In ghettos roiling with neglect and lawless discontent, any predisposition toward secularism broke down in post-shock-and-awe Iraq. Napoleoni offers a solid synthesis of just how, just as the democratic-leaning Shi’ite majority lost its faith in the Coalition, al-Zarqawi and his imported jihadists played a pivotal role in keeping Iraq’s Sunnis from uniting with the Shi’ites in a national front against the occupation.

This is where Zaqarwi, with the help of the American myth-making machine, achieved his real power. Maintaining localized fundamentalism as his core aim, Zarqawi’s fear was that “the jihadists would be cut out [of the Iraq insurgency] because they were foreigners and the insurgency would become secular.” So he fervently endeavored to prevent Sunni-Shi’ite unity. According to history so far, he succeeded.

Writes Napoleoni: “Thus the myth of al Zarqawi could mark the future of Iraq. Even if he is caught and killed. The insurgency will not stop. On the contrary, his capture or death would enlarge his myth and strengthen his legacy.”

Napoleoni is a scholar not an investigative, frontline journalist. Her assertions in Insurgent Iraq are based more on second-hand info, quotes, and sometimes conjecture. But given the outcomes as we now know them, these assertions are convincing.

Readers will occasionally get lost in the author’s assertions. Napoleoni sometimes attributes quotes to sources who have not been identified beyond name, and certain arguments—particularly where she tries to proffer evidence of the early Zarqawi’s non-terrorist nature—fall into a void. But with its lengthy appendix, including extensive sourcing, glossary, chronology, and brisk wording, Insurgent Iraq is an excellent and prescient resource.

“The more the United states demonize him, the more he is singled out as the supervillain of terror,” Napoleoni writes, “the more the media broadcast that he has been arrested or cornered by Coalition forces, is injured or even dead, the greater his supernatural myth grows. He is the Arab Zorro…”

She describes the current Iraq insurgency as a Hydra with new heads at the ready. Indeed, following the recent slaying of al Zarqawi, CNN reported that “US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice authorized up to a $5 million reward Friday for information leading to the capture of Abu Ayyub al-Masri, believed to be the replacement for the late leader of al Qaeda in Iraq—Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.”

In chapter seven, illustrating the hyperbole growing around the myth of al Zarqawi, Napoleoni writes, “As the myth took shape, the life of the man faded into its own legend. He was a chemical engineer, an expert on explosives, a legendary mujahed, a close associate of Osama bin Laden. He lost a leg in battle defending al Queda from US raids, he had been operating in Iraq under the protection of Saddam, and at the same time he had been seen in the Pankisi gorge… It is unreasonable to believe that al Zarqawi had the time or means to build such a global network, or to travel to so many places, whether with one leg or two.”

In its July 3-10, 2006 issue, Newsweek magazine reported: “If you hoped his June 7 death might be the end of the line for Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, you really don’t want to see the newest recruitment videos for the Taliban. Although they never mention the Jordanian-born terrorist by name, the echoes of his Internet videos—and his sheer viciousness—are unmistakable and chilling. The star is Mullah Dadullah Akhund, a one-legged guerrilla commander in southern Afghanistan who now seems bent on matching or exceeding Zarqawi’s ugly reputation.”

The very same article goes on to say that “US commanders downplay the importance of individual enemy leaders. They say the way to win the war is to focus on the big picture, not on personalities.”

Has the government learned from its mistakes, even as the media carry on with the myth-making?

So begins another gruesome chapter…

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From our weblog:

“Abu Ayyub al-Masri: kinder, gentler jihad?” June 17, 2006
/node/2096

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Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, July 1, 2006

Reprinting permissible with attribution

Continue ReadingABU MUSAB AL ZARQAWI: THE MAKING OF THE MYTH 

THE DA VINCI CODE: DECODING THE PHENOMENON

The Paradoxes of Mainstreaming Esotericism

by Mark Sanborne

Dizzy from all the Decoding? Tired of endless yammering about Tom Hank’s hair? Ready to move on from the “Greatest Coverup in Human History”? Well, welcome to the cult, er, club. The perfect media-publicity storm and religio-cultural zeitgeist-tickler that is The Da Vinci Code, the second coming of Dan Brown’s controversial super-blockbuster 2003 novel, has at last arrived in theaters. So let the deconstruction begin…

Despite being roundly panned by most critics, the movie is, unsurprisingly, making tons of money—nearly $150 million in its first two weeks—attracting both the book’s legions of fans along with many others curious what all the fuss is about. For those of you who may have been hiding in a tomb the last few years, here’s the gist:

Both the novel and movie posit that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, who was not a prostitute (a folk tradition added later by Rome) but a lady of high standing who fled Palestine after the crucifixion with the couple’s child—a girl, Sarah—and settled among the Jewish community in southern France. After hundreds of years their descendants, carrying the royal blood of the house of the biblical King David, eventually got around to intermarrying with the Merovingians, the myth-shrouded first line of French kings who lived in the fifth through eighth centuries. Ever since, the Roman Catholic Church has been obsessed with extirpating this sacred lineage to prevent the explosive secret from getting out, beginning with the supposed assassination of Dagobert II in 679. (Much of Brown’s speculative information came from a 1982 British book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, about which more below.)

In response, a secret society known as the Priory of Sion was formed during the First Crusade in 1099 to protect the putative royal bloodline. The Priory, in turn, was said to have formed the real-life Knights Templar, the order of warrior-monks who served as the Crusader armies’ shock troops and went on to establish the first international banking system before being accused of heresy and suppressed by the greedy King Philippe IV of France in 1307.

Meanwhile, the Priory had also been busy behind the scenes propagating the Grail romances that became all the rage in the 12th and 13th centuries, particularly those by Chretien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach, which included a Grail Family guarded by Templars. However, rather than being a sacred cup or chalice—the San Graal, or Holy Grail—it actually represented the Sang Raal, or Royal Blood, transformed from a pagan fertility symbol like the Horn of Plenty into a covert reference to the womb of the Magdalene, the Sacred Feminine suppressed by the church, and the secret lineage of the King of the Jews.

But wait, there’s more. The Priory of Sion supposedly has continued to exist down through the centuries, with grand masters of the order ranging from the first, Jean de Gisors, to such luminaries as Nicolas Flamel, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Robert Fludd, Robert Boyle, Issac Newton, Charles Nodier, Victor Hugo, Claude Debussy, and Jean Cocteau. However, the only “grand master” we can be sure of is one Pierre Plantard “de Saint-Clair,” an eccentric Frenchman who died in 2000 and who may have been the man behind the curtain who pulled the levers on the whole thing.

TELL & SHOW

Enough gist for now, let’s review the movie in question. In most key respects it is indeed faithful to the book—many might argue to a fault, though clearly director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman felt they couldn’t afford to alienate the novel’s vast readership. (Similar logic lies behind the Star Trek movies: first satisfy the trekkie fan base, then everything else is gravy.)

That faithfulness means the movie consists largely of exposition, with patches of competently staged action serving as brief bridges to the next set of esoteric talking points. (Despite Brown’s hammy prose, reading the novel seemed faster than watching the film, though Hans Zimmer’s score is nicely evocative.) And a fair amount of the special-effects “action” consists of brief, sepia-tinted historical flashbacks to such events as the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., the First Crusade, and the suppression of the Templars.

In brief, for the lucky few who have not read or seen The Da Vinci Code, the movie follows the adventures of Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Hanks), who while visiting Paris is called to the Louvre to view a dead and self-mutilated curator laid out on the floor like da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Langdon quickly hooks up with Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), a police cryptographer who turns out to be the estranged grand-daughter of the dead man—who in fact is the latest grand master of the Priory of Sion.

The two are quickly on the run from Bezu Fache (Jean Reno), a French cop, and Silas (Paul Bettany), a cowl-wearing albino assassin, both of whom are acting under orders from a bishop of Opus Dei, the ultraconservative Catholic society. The bishop (Alfred Molina) is seen conspiring with several shadowy Vatican figures, discussing the need for “sacrifices” to cover up the church’s dirty laundry. Meanwhile, Ian McKellen steals the show in the role of Grail expert Sir Leigh Teabing, who employs hi-tech computer wizardry to demonstrate to Sophie that the person to the left of Jesus in da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” is actually Mary Magdalene. He seems to be the only one in the movie having fun, and offers viewers a knowing smirk like he did when playing Gandalf smoking a bowl of Hobbit-weed back in the first installment of The Lord of the Rings.

Needless to say, I was not disturbed by the book or film’s cavalier treatment of orthodox Christian tradition. (For the record, I was confirmed as an Episcopalian, but my instinctive adolescent doubts were even more confirmed when I learned that “my” Anglican religion had been created so that Henry VIII could get laid. That early cynicism, combined with my early interest in anthropology, eventually helped make me the scientific Taoist-Gnostic I sort of am today.) In fact, by far the most disturbing thing in the movie came early on, in a scene showing Silas demonstrating an X-treme form of the “corporal mortification” practiced by some Opus Dei adherents, pulling the sharp barbs of a “cilice” from the bloody and suppurating flesh of his thighs as he lashes his back with a cat-o-nine-tails and the camera lingers far too long on his naked white butt crack.

The action, such as it is, moves from France to London, but once McKellen leaves the scene the movie slows to a crawl, and the last 15 minutes seemed painfully endless. In their search for the Grail—which apparently consists of the bones of the Magdalene and some bloodline documents—Langdon and Sophie finally get to Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, a hotbed of esoteric speculation built in the 1400s that includes Templar and pagan influences. Our loveless couple encounters a crowd of locals looking like they’d stepped out of an English country catalog who turn out to be members of the Priory “family,” and Sophie finds out (SPOILER ALERT!) that she, too, is carrying the royal blood. Langdon ends up back in Paris at the Louvre, but I’ll save the final plot “twist” for those still don’t know and insist on going to the movie.

FAITH, HOLLYWOOD, AND THE GLOBAL MARKET

Since Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ caused a vicious religious backlash around the world—and it only showed Jesus fantasizing about having sex with Mary Magdalene—Sony Pictures Entertainment knew it had a big problem on its hand when it acquired the rights to The Da Vinci Code in 2003. A fascinating story in the May 22, 2006 New Yorker detailed how, in the wake of the unexpectedly huge box office success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, Hollywood was learning not to totally ignore the concerns of religious-minded moviegoers.

Sony hired a faith-oriented consultant and by last year was already funding websites like www.thedavincidialogue.com, where mainstream religious experts debunk Brown’s work. The effort to proactively reach out paid off, and most clergy around the country talked more about engaging the issues than protests and boycotts, which were seen as counterproductive. Even Opus Dei spoke of the upcoming movie—which of course no one could stop from being a blockbuster, anyway—as a “teaching moment.” But this new spirit of toleration did not sit well with everyone: Barbara Nicolosi, a screenwriter and Christian blogger, called those working with Sony “useful Christian idiots” who were debating the issue “on Hell’s terms.”

Hollywood movies are one of the most reliable exports from the West to the rest of humanity, but in this most unflat world of globalization, pleasing everyone is not always easy. Ironically, while Sony was able to help temper the tone of the domestic debate about the movie, it appears to have had more problems with its customers in much of the rest of the world.

In advance of The Da Vinci Code‘s mid-May debut at the Cannes Film Festival, a variety of protests were staged in India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, South Korea, and Zambia, among other places. India even put a temporary hold on the movie’s release because of complaints. Apparently, Christians outside the US, particularly those who are a minority in their own country, are more militant in defense of their faith than many god-fearing Americans. (Though thankfully the protests haven’t risen to the level caused earlier this year by Danish cartoons lampooning the prophet Muhammad.)

Meanwhile, the Da Vinci Moment was the sort of thing American cable TV was made for: wall-to-wall coverage with what seemed like dozens of news reports, documentaries, profiles, and puff pieces all tied to the movie. The History and Discovery channels were particularly gung-ho in the week leading up to the premier, and my eyes glazed over as I took in as much as I could.

Several interesting examples from the History Channel stand out. One was on the network’s new hit, “Digging for the Truth” with host Josh Bernstein, a hunky Jewish Indiana Jones who travels the world taking a hands-on approach to archaeology. In this one, he actually got a French museum to donate a sample from the bones of a supposed Merovingian princess and compared its DNA to that of an ancient community of Jewish descent in Israel. Result: Supposedly the princess didn’t carry a Middle East “marker,” providing extremely-sketchy-to-the-point-of-nonsense evidence that the genes of the Semitic Jesus and Mary Magdalene did not mix with early French kings. (Whew!)

Another eye-opener: a documentary that suggested the Knights Templar, both before and after the suppression of their order, were instrumental in the formation of the five cantons of the modern Swiss state. It noted the rapidity with which Switzerland went from being a collection of isolated settlements to an organized confederation with famously well-drilled defense forces during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance periods, and developed into a center of international banking. There’s also Switzerland’s traditional neutrality in international affairs and spirit of religious tolerance, both Templar traits. And oh yeah, the Templar emblem appears on the Swiss national flag and on the flags and emblems of many of the cantons—not to mention on the Swiss Army knife! Good stuff.

Finally, while watching yet another program, I was suddenly struck by the image of a painted statue at a church in southern France dedicated, like many in the region, to the Magdalene. The statue is of both Mary and her child, Sarah, and while Mary appears European, Sarah’s skin is a chocolate brown, and her features appear to be Egyptian. A Black Madonna in waiting, perhaps?

THE PRIORY OF PIERRE PLANTARD

There were also numerous programs, on both cable and broadcast TV (including 60 Minutes) dissecting the “facts” that Brown claimed lay behind his fictional story. The prologue of his novel is preceded by this statement: “FACT: The Priory of Sion—a European secret society founded in 1099—is a real organization. In 1975 Paris’s Bibliotheque Nationale discovered parchments known as Les Dossiers Secrets, identifying numerous members of the Priory, including Sir Issac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and Leonardo da Vinci.”

So much for the “facts”—it’s hard to know where to begin. The so-called Secret Dossiers were not “discovered” by France’s national library, but were deposited there in the 1960s by the aforementioned Pierre Plantard and his cohorts—and are generally assumed to be fraudulent. They were not “parchments” but consisted mostly of copies of modern typewritten documents, including numerous genealogies and the infamous list of Priory “grand masters.” The dossiers were uncovered in the 1970s by three British writers—Henry Lincoln, Michael Baigent, and Richard Leigh—in the course of research that led to their controversial 1982 book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which first formulated and laid out the whole Priory-Merovingian-Jesus-bloodline scenario, and which Dan Brown (and his wife and principal researcher Blythe Brown) later appropriated for The Da Vinci Code.

In the novel, the name of the Ian McKellen character, Leigh Teabing, is an anagramatic tribute to the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and Teabing actually points out the book on his shelf and cites its importance. But those indirect acknowledgements were not enough to prevent Baigent and Leigh from suing Random House, publisher of The Da Vinci Code, in London’s high court for copyright infringement, charging that Brown had in effect stolen the “architecture” of their nonfiction book for his novel.

This past April, Judge Peter Smith ruled against the plaintiffs while also strongly criticizing the methods and testimony of Dan Brown and the fact that his wife declined to appear before the court. In keeping with the circus-like spirit of the occasion, the judge also embedded his own gimmicky coded message in his 70-page decision (italicized letters spelled out “Smithy Code Jackie Fisher who are you Dreadnought,” an obscure reference to British Naval history), while the highly publicized trial helped pump up the sales of both Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code in the run-up to the movie’s premier.

And what about elusive Mr. Plantard? It turns out to be a story that neither begins nor ends well During the war, he formed a quasi-occult, pro-Vichy association that was both anti-masonic and anti-semitic. In 1956, he registered the Priory of Sion as an association with the French government, indicating in its statutes a desire to form a monastic order. In the 1960s he teamed up with author Gerard de Sede to begin spreading the idea the Priory was descended from the Abbey of Sion, a monastic order that records indicate indeed was formed in Jerusalem during the First Crusade but later was dissolved.

Though French researchers were already casting doubts on Plantard’s credibilty as early as the 1970s, the manufactured Secret Dossiers became a centerpiece of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, ultimately providing much of the intellectual basis for The Da Vinci Code. Finally, however, Plantard’s confabulations caught up with him, and what remained of his reputation was ruined. In 1993, an investigative judge ordered a search of his home, which turned up numerous forged documents, including some proclaiming him as the true king of France through a nonexistent Merovingian linkage. Plantard admitted to his fabrications under oath and afterwards lived quietly until his death in 2000.

BLASPHEMERS AND FUNDAMENTALISTS: PARADOXICAL UNITY

In the end, it’s hard to see clearly through all the murk. But maybe that’s sort of the point. The Da Vinci Code is successful because it taps into the deep inner stuff that makes us tick, drilled into our collective unconscious by 2,000 years of mass indoctrination.

Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln also worked the notorious anti-semitic forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, into their story, maintaining that it actually referred to the Priory of Sion, with the Jews as stand-ins for the real secret order. Meanwhile, fringe Christian end-timers view the pseudo-unveiling of the Priory as a fulfillment of prophecies in the Book of Revelations and proof of a vast anti-Christian conspiracy.

Hollywood merely appropriates the outrage of the fundamentalists as an implicit tool of the publicity machine, while the fundamentalists likewise use outrage at this evidence of society’s domination by amoral apostasy as a recruiting tool. These seeming opposites feed off each other—the same dynamic which is at work in the global showdown between Western imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism.

RESOURCES:

Sony’s “The Da Vinci Dialogue”
http://www.thedavincidialogue.com

Wikipedia page on the Priory of Sion
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Priory_of_Sion

See also:

“Bible scholars to crack Mafia code?,” April 23
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Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, June 1, 2006
Reprinting permissible with attribution

Continue ReadingTHE DA VINCI CODE: DECODING THE PHENOMENON 

FOUCAULT’S PERSIAN GULF

Reality, Perception and the Iranian Revolution

BOOK REVIEW

FOUCAULT AND THE IRANIAN REVOLUTION
Gender and the Seductions of Islamism
by Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson
University of Chicago, 2005

by Sandy McCroskey

I.

When Michel Foucault arrived in Iran in September 1978 to begin what turned out to be a short-lived second career as a journalist, an earthquake had just obliterated forty villages. “Ten years ago to the day,” Foucault tells us, a quake destroyed the town of Ferdows in the same area. In its place arose two new towns.

“On one side, there was the town of administration, the Ministry of Housing, and the notables. But a little further away, the artisans and the farmers rebuilt their own town, in opposition to all these official plans. Under the direction of a cleric, they collected the funds, built and dug with their own hands, laid out canals and wells, and constructed a mosque. On the first day they planted a green flag. The new village is called Islamiyeh. Facing the government and against it, Islam: already ten years old.”

Throughout his life and work, Foucault had been deeply concerned with manifestations of “the will not to be governed,” with all forms of resistance to “this monstrosity we call the state,” whether in its capitalist (“the harshest, most savage, most selfish, most dishonest, oppressive society one could possibly imagine”) or socialist formations (though he remained affiliated with the socialist party in France). On the day before the shah finally fled Iran, Foucault gave a lecture (on liberalism—in the European sense—and “governmentality”) at the College de France, in which he posed the question: “Why is it necessary for the state to govern any given aspect of life at all?” The Iranian uprising could never have happened without the opposition of church and state and, from day one, Foucault never lets us forget that. To a degree, it should have been obvious: The vast majority of Iranians were Shi’ite Muslims; any mobilization of the masses would have to have the approval, at least, of the religious authorities. But there was clearly something here that could not be explained by Western theory on “revolution.” Religion appeared to be the primary instigating, guiding and unifying force.

Another seismic upheaval, Foucault tells us, had shortly preceded the quake: the Black Friday massacre of September 1, when the army mowed down at least 250 anti-shah demonstrators in Tehran. It was only the latest, and not yet the worst, in a series of such events; eventually the army would refuse to fire on their countrymen (and -women), but not before thousands became martyrs to the cause and—the way most of them looked at it—entered the gates of paradise. This willingness to sacrifice oneself deeply impressed Foucault. It is known that he had no philosophical objection to suicide (far from it)—as a personal choice that should be available to everyone, but also as a political act. “Death is power’s limit, the moment that escapes it,” he wrote in The Will to Know.

Foucault tells us that “the economic difficulties in Iran at that time were not sufficiently great for people to take to the streets, in their hundreds of thousands, in their millions, and face the machine-guns bare-chested.” So what set it off? Nationalist leftists, the far-left Fedayeen and Muhajedeen and indeed almost every social group in Iran were all opposed to the shah. But it was the willingness of so many to put their lives on that line in demonstrations organized by the Shi’ites (often taking the form of religious ceremonies mourning those previously fallen in the struggle), that ultimately brought down the regime—despite its fearsome army, despite its ruthless secret police, despite the backing of the entire world economic order, including the United States. Jimmy Carter was only then starting to tsk-tsk at the shah’s numerous and flagrant human rights violations. “In Iran the religious calendar sets the political schedule,” Foucault notes. Looking forward to the annual Muharram celebration, “the great ritual of penance,” Foucault could already see “exaltation in the martyrdom for a just cause,” when “the crowds are ready to advance toward death in the intoxication of sacrifice.”

Foucault saw the virtual absence of political maneuvering inside the movement, as well as the apparent lack of a political program to be implemented should it succeed, as evidence of a total rejection by the “collective will” of “politics,” tout court. He was well aware that after the departure of the shah this could change, overnight, though he liked to think it was part of the overall rejection of the past century of Iran’s dependence on the West. Of course, one reason the uprising manifested itself as “non-political” was that there was no political arena: Parties had been abolished in 1963 (the same year women were so magnanimously given the vote); the far-left militias had refused all discussion with the regime (they were “on strike against politics”). Now, of course, we know all too well what rushed in to fill the political vacuum after the shah fell.

Foucault has been criticized for hypostatizing “a perfectly united collective will” behind the uprising. It is clear he was aware of differing and even competing tendencies: In his November 7 dispatch for Corriere della Sera, he gives as one factor in the instigation of what appears to have been an atypically violent student riot the “rivalry between the political and the religious groups. There was on everyone’s mind a sort of mutual challenge between revolutionary radicalism and Islamic radicalism, neither of which wanted to seem more conciliatory and less courageous than the other.” But this isn’t what interested him, particularly. In an interview he tells journalist Pierre Blanchet: “What I liked about your articles was that they didn’t try to break up this phenomenon into its constituent elements, they tried to leave it as a single beam of light, even though we know that it is made up of several elements.”

That collective will asked for “a sole and very precise thing, the departure of the shah. But for the Iranian people, this unique thing means everything… This political will is one of breaking with all that marks their country and their daily lives with the presence of global hegemonies.” For one thing, rampant corruption. Foucault is not talking about Iran, he’s talking about us, when he asks, “Do you know of a treatise on political economy, or of sociology, or history books, that offers a serious and detailed analysis of the speculation, corrupt practices, embezzlement, and swindling that constitute the veritable daily bread of our trade, our industry, and our finances?” In Iran, the regime was synonymous with corruption; that was simply the way things worked. One can wonder how many countries are different. In Iran, though, the shah’s shameless pillaging of his own people, dividing the spoils among his own family and favorites, was made possible by the generous sponsorship of foreign powers. To most Iranians, modernization had meant nothing but displacement and hardship. For the past hundred years they had trudged along, heads down, on a forced march to an alien future. Now they were again lifting their eyes… to the sky…

“Throughout this whole year, revolt ran through Iran, from celebrations to commemorations, from worship, to sermons, to prayers. Tehran honored the dead of Abadan, Tabriz those of Isfahan, and Isfahan those of Qom. White, red, and green lanterns were lit up after nightfall on big tree branches in front of hundreds of houses. It was the ‘wedding bed’ of the boys just killed. In the mosques during the day, the mullahs spoke ferociously against the shah, the Americans, and the West and its materialism. They called for the people to fight against the entire regime in the name of the Quran and of Islam. When the mosques became too small for the crowd, loudspeakers were put in the streets. These voices, as terrible as must have been that of Savonarola in Florence, the voices of the Anabaptists in Munster, or those of the Presbyterians at the time of Cromwell, resounded through the whole village, the whole neighborhood.”

Ealier in the report excerpted above, Foucault tells us that he had spoken with a sociologist about the role of Islam in the people’s daily lives, and, told that it is “a refuge,” he suspected his interviewee of toning down the truth for the sake of his Western ears. A reformed Marxist, Foucault was convinced by now that religion could be something other than “the opiate of the people.” He continues:

“Many of these sermons were recorded, and the tapes circulated throughout Iran. In Tehran, a writer who was not at all a religious man let me listen to some of them. They seemed to evoke neither withdrawal nor a refuge. Nor did they evoke disarray or fear.”.

I must have read this passage three times before it dawned on me that Foucault could tell us only what the tapes do not “evoke”—or even “seem to evoke”—because, not knowing the language, he can’t tell us what they do say

The answer Foucault most often heard to the question, “What do you want?” was “Islamic government.” Foucault clearly accepted the most optimistic interpretation of what this would mean. The mullahs, while not a “revolutionary force,” were not part of a hierachical structure; they acted as “photographic plates,” simply reflecting the people’s will. As for after the revolution—why, one must have “faith in the creativity of Islam.” At times, he waxes almost ecstatic: “What place can be given, within the calculations of politics, to such a movement, to a movement that does not let itself be divided among political choices, a movement through which blows the breath of a religion that speaks less of the hereafter than of the transfiguration of this world?”

File under “famous last words”: “By Islamic government, nobody in Iran means a political regime in which the clerics would have a role of supervision or control.” “Khomeini is not a politician. There will not be a Khomeini party; there will not be a Khomeini government.” So there’s no doubt Foucault was genuinely shocked when Khomeini consolidated his grip and the hands and heads started falling. He spoke out about the repression in an open letter to the (alas, only) nominal head of government Mehdi Bazargan, and reminded him of their conversations before the revolution, when Foucault was given many assurances about the positive effect religion would have in reining in (as opposed to reigning in) government. But he did not seem sufficiently contrite to many of his critics, and he is said to have lost friends over this.

Foucault clearly hadn’t sufficiently prepared for tackling this assignment. Although he had “read several books on Islam and Shi’ism,” it doesn’t seem he had often dipped into the supposed source, the Koran. Nor had he been informed of the contents of Khomeini’s 1943 treatise, Kashf al-Asrar (The Unveiling of Secrets), which spelled out exactly what the ayatollah would do upon accession to power over thirty years later. Oops!

How could Foucault not have gotten a hint of the authoritarian nature of traditional Islamic societies? In 1961, he wrote in Folie et déraison that the establishment of “communities of ethical uniformity” placed the nonconformist into “a relation to himself that was of the order of transgression, and a nonrelation to others that was of the order of shame.” Nothing in Foucault’s reportage is as troubling as his repeated invocation of the confused notion of “political spirituality.” When such mirages as this float before the eyes, one must wonder if, under the blazing Persian sun, the skin-headed savant forgot to wear a hat.

II.

From September 1978 to May 1979, Foucault published eleven articles on Iran, nine in the Italian Corriere della Sera and two in Le Nouvel Observateur. He also gave interviews on the topic for a magazine in Persian and a French book. The Italian pieces didn’t appear in French until 1994, and it is only now that most of these articles, unique in Foucault’s canon, can be found in English—in the appendix to Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson’s Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism. The appendix also contains a couple of short (even snippy!) replies of Foucault to his critics, articles by his critics and some related documents on the feminist front. Especially worthwhile are the essays by the late Maxime Rodinson, who forthrightly tears into the hazy concept of “political spirituality” and from the beginning had no illusions about the “archaic fascism” in Islamism.

Although those interested in Foucault can only be grateful for this volume, Afary and Anderson do not do Foucault any favors in the strident commentary that takes up the first half of the book. They seem to believe that they have discovered Foucault’s philosophic Achilles’ heel, that his treatment of the events in Iran reveals flaws that compromise all his work.

Afary and Anderson’s most constant refrain is the dubious claim that Foucault’s work is pervaded with a dualism that privileges premodern over modern cultures. A reference to “the famous gaze” of the shah is rather facilely taken to be an allusion to a similar trope in Surveiller et punir (Discipline and Punish), with its contrast between the era when criminals expiated their debt to society in gruesome, ritualistic displays of physical punishment and death, and the modern age of the “panoptical” carceral society. Surely (I thought) they do not mean to imply that Foucault favored a return to the barbarism of eye-for-an-eye justice (as Khomeinism in practice turned out to be). The implication returns in the discussion of Foucault’s studies (concurrent with his interest in Iran) of Christian ascetic practices, in which he is said to have been more interested in the expression of penitence through bodily mortification than through verbal confession—”which Foucault criticized alongside modern disciplinary techniques”! (These penitence rituals are similar to the ancient practices of celebrants of Muharram, commemorating the founding myth of Shi’ism, the martyrdom of Hussein at the Battle of Karbala.)

This line of research is tied in, of course, with Foucault’s being a sadomasochistic perv, though it’s not clear how that is supposed to have affected his conclusions. As a matter of fact, Foucault argued for the abolition of all punishment—as utopian as that may sound. It is, at any rate, very questionable if Iranian society under the shah can be taken as epitomizing the carceral society drawn in Surveiller et punir from European models and experiences, in the ultimate development of which all good citizens will have internalized the tyrant’s gaze to such a degree that the state has no need of secret police or omnipresent spy technology to keep most people in line. In Iran, the ideology of the oppressor had never been adopted by the populace, and the shah needed every gun at his disposal—until even that wasn’t enough.

Afary and Anderson’s language is often just plain silly: “In distancing himself from the possibility of attaining absolute knowledge [for shame!], and the Hegelian dialectic of mutual recognition, Foucault instead celebrated the French author Marquis de Sade.” Foucault’s fascination with self-sacrifice is condemned with a flip of a limp bit of jargon, “the discourse of death.”

Although on several occasions they commend the astuteness of Foucault’s perceptions—for example, when he countered assessments of Khomeini as a flash in the pan who had come to the fore only because of the impotence of the parties, driven underground—somehow the very same sort of observation is taken by them as evidence of both Foucault’s perspicacity and despicableness: “Foucault stood out in his celebration of the dominant Islamist wing, including the latter’s rejection of Western Marxist and liberal notions of democracy, women’s equality, and human rights.” Suffice to say that Foucault never “celebrated” the oppression of anyone. You see what a lot of mischief that little, uncalled-for “including” can do. Thus goes this inquisition, where Foucault’s text is stretched out of shape on the rack of the authors’ preconceptions.

They pull a similar trick when they say that “Foucault’s support for the new wave of Islamist uprisings that started in Iran in 1978, what he called this ‘powder keg’ set against the dominant global powers, was not entirely uncritical.” This would be “support,” however qualified, for events Foucault would never see, as he wrote nothing (“lapsed into silence,” in our authors’ formulation) about this part of the world after May 1979, and died in 1984.

To drive home the enormity of Foucault’s transgression, there is an epilogue bringing us up to September 11, 2001. To be sure, Foucault foretold that the dominant West’s confrontation with that other, Muslim world could be the source of many conflagrations to come, though when he spoke of Islam “setting the whole region afire,” it seems he was thinking of nationalist revolts. There are to date only two other countries that have fallen under radical Muslim control since 1979 (or can we count Iraq yet?), and they got that way not at all in a manner similar to the Iranian “people power” revolution. War-ravaged Afghanistan fell to the Sunni Taliban army in 1996, while in Sudan Islamist rule was imposed through a succession of military coups in the 1980s. It is not known if Foucault had an inkling that Islamist revolt would evolve into the borderless terrorism of a global jihad—itself another form of totalitarianism—but it is highly unlikely that he would have applauded the fall of the Twin Towers as “the high point of the spectacle,” as did that idiot Jean Baudrillard (trotted out here to somehow invalidate Foucault’s ideas, though his work has nothing at all to do with Foucault’s).

Afary and Anderson quote, with seeming approval, Le Monde editor Alain Minc’s scurrilous reference to Foucault as an “advocate of Khomeinism…and in theory of its exactions” [emphasis added]. Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and their ilk are attacked for attempting to put a little blame on US foreign policy—well, one could have predicted that.

A section of A&A’s book contains the sensational-sounding heading “Foucault’s Meeting with Ayatollah Khomeini and ‘Political Spirituality'”. Who wouldn’t want to be a fly on that wall? We read that “Foucault was granted a meeting with Khomeini at his residence outside Paris.” But the extract from Didier Eribon’s Foucault biography that follows does not actually say that. It refers to “a visit to Neuphles,” where Khomeini was in retreat, during which Foucault saw the ayatollah’s son and son-in-law display a touch of tolerance by insisting that a German journalist not be sent away even though she was not wearing a veil. Nor does Foucault come any closer to Khomeini elsewhere in the section. In a footnote to his brief treatment of the Iranian affair, James Miller cites Eribon as a source for the statement that “Foucault never met Khomeini; he did go…to Neuphles-le-Chateau outside Paris, where Khomeini was in exile between October 7, 1978, and his eventual return to Iran the following year; but all [Foucault’s] group got to see was Khomeini walking in the distance.” I haven’t read Eribon, but my money’s on Miller here.

Among their most egregious errors, Afary and Anderson quote at length a passage from an April 1978 lecture in Tokyo as presenting Foucault’s own account of shifting attitudes toward sexuality in the West over past centuries. Those with a little familiarity with Foucault’s History of Sexuality, even from reviews, might recognize that Foucault was only recounting the standard story about such things, the reigning paradigm that he would now proceed to shatter, if his listener would just sit tight for the rest of the seminar.

Foucault’s treatment of matters pertaining to sexuality and social control is far more nuanced than Afary and Anderson seem able to grasp. And ain’t that a shame, for a book with the portentous (and academic-sexy) subtitle “Gender and the Seductions of Islamism,” which might lead us to think that A&A have pinpointed the critical blind spot in Foucault’s worldview, on which all the book’s themes will converge. It doesn’t quite work that way.

The authors’ most serious accusation is that Foucault didn’t care about women’s rights. It is true that in the context of the Iranian revolution, he said precious little about them. He mentions “the subjugation of women” in his last article on the topic, in May 1979, but it doesn’t figure in his open letter to Prime Minister Bazargan, except as understood to be part of “human rights.”

There is a chapter headed “Debating the Outcome of the Revolution, Especially on Women’s Rights,” but where was the debate? Kate Millet and other feminists traveled to Iran, and reported that women’s rights were in execrable shape. They were apparently attacked for this by some French leftists—but not by Foucault, who didn’t disagree that things had taken a bad turn after the revolution.

It is true that before the ascent of Khomeini to power he seemed blissfully unaware that the righteous Islamists would often flog a woman for not donning the veil. If we give him the benefit of the doubt on that, he still could not have been ignorant that women in a traditionally patriarchal culture would not have the same privileges as men—perhaps this was too obvious a fact for Foucault to feel it needed restating in his own ever-provocative prose. Another explanation is that he may have regarded it as presumptuous for him to pass judgment on another culture. One may consider this as a kind of Orientalism-in-spite-of-itself, in which Foucault would be in the illustrious company of no less enlightened a gent than Edward W. Said—whom Afary and Anderson show mocking Simone de Beauvoir as “silly” and full of herself when, during a March 1979 meeting in Paris on the Palestinian-Israeli situation, she spoke about her upcoming journey to Iran with Kate Millet and inveighed against the forced wearing of the chador. (The text of a speech Beauvoir gave after the trip is included in the appendix.)

When Foucault said, in his letter to Bazargan, that he was sure the Iranians were tired of receiving “such noisy lectures” from the outside world, he could have been referring to Millet, Beauvoir and others. It’s just vague enough; you can’t be sure.

One is tempted to connect a few dots in the chapter on “Male Homosexuality in Mediterranean and Muslim Societies.” When Iranian feminists spoke out against the traditional ways of homosexuality in their country (with the prevalence of passive/dominant relations, often with a significant age difference), did Foucault consider this another case of one culture attempting to impose its values on another? But this would only be wild speculation. The chapter contains much on same-sex relations between males in the Muslim world that sheds some light on why Foucault could be shocked to discover that the Koran commands that homosexuals be executed. Afary and Anderson give us a darkly comic account of the night when he was presented with this information, chapter and verse. (It is not known whether this was during Foucault’s first or second visit to Iran.)

But all this could be beside the point. Foucault makes only passing mention of anti-Semitism among the Iranian Islamists, just enough to let us know he was aware of it. Now, Foucault himself was the farthest thing from an anti-Semite. His estrangement from the more anti-Zionist Gilles Deleuze was caused in part by their disagreement on Israel/Palestine. Yet he suggested that Khomeini’s movement could gain in strength by putting the liberation of Palestine on the agenda (one wonders, wasn’t it already?). It should be clear that he was not endorsing every Islamist position—no more than he was converting to Islam. Afary and Anderson call the Iranian episode “the most passionate and significant political commitment of Foucault’s life”—with the admitted, and extremely significant, exception of his work in the early 1970s with the Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons, which he founded. And “commitment” is perhaps too strong a word for Foucault’s stance vis-a-vis Iran, which Foucault himself, speaking to his students in the cooler confines of the College de France on the eve of what history would call the Iranian Revolution, typified as “wishful participation.”

The reader who knows something about Foucault may lose patience with Afary and Anderson in the first couple chapters. I do urge readers to turn first to Foucault’s own report, unmediated; but there is some valuable information to be dug out of the remainder (some of which has, obviously, informed this review).

For example, Foucault writes briefly of one Ali Shariati, Khomeini’s predecessor as leader of the fundamentalist movement, who had died two years earlier but whose “shadow…haunts all political and religious life in Iran today.” Foucault tells us that Shariati studied in Europe, had contacts with various strains of revolutionary, socialist thought and brought back to his country the message that Shi’ism’s true meaning was “in the sermons of social justice and equality that had already been preached by the first imam [Ali].” From Afary and Anderson we learn that Shariati was influenced by Heidegger, who was also very important to Foucault; Heidegger’s concepts of existential choice and authenticity are said to have inflected a reinterpretation of Shi’ism.

Alavid Shi’ism—a pure Shi’ism of Ali—was to replace the “Safavid Shi’ism” institutionalized by the Safavid Dynasty in the seventeenth century, when Shia became (perforce) the faith of the nation. Shariati began to teach (and we can’t blame the atheist Heidegger for this) that becoming a martyr was the one sure path to paradise and, adding a new tone of vindictiveness, the one sure way to damn your enemies to hell. According to Afary and Anderson, in Shariati’s interpretation of the founding myth of Shi’ism, Hussein’s martyrdom was “not the type of death through which God forgave the sins of humanity, it was one that pointed toward revenge, a death that marked the enemy as a horrible sinner.” (I am assuming, of course, that Afary and Anderson’s reading of Shariati is more accurate than their reading of Foucault.) Foucault also does not mention the strain of anti-Semitism that Afary and Anderson tell us ran through Shariati’s thought, and one must wonder how deeply he had read in the man’s works.

III.

I think that Foucault wrote nothing else about Iran after May 1979 simply because, well, it was over. He’d said all he had to say in his last article, “Is It Useless to Revolt?” where he insisted that to call the revolt meaningless because it ultimately failed was as illegitimate as the mullahs’ justification of their reign by the blood of the martyrs.

In his last years Foucault turned his attention to Stoicism and the concept of self-creation through a purely individual ethics that would function as “a very strong structure of existence, without any relation with the juridical per se, or with an authoritarian system or a disciplinary structure.” His ethics had, of course, been a personal one already in 1979, “antistrategic,” as he wrote. “One must be respectful when a singularity arises and intransigent as soon as the state violates universals.” He was always on the lookout for the chinks in power’s armor, for “what must unconditionally limit” politics. Confronting the uprising that he considered to have world historical importance (and who will say that it didn’t?) as “perhaps the first great insurrection against global systems,” he considered it a duty to listen, as one should listen to anyone who pits his life against overwhelming power, to the madman at the end of his rope, to the criminal who would dash across the bullet-strafed yard. One is not required, he added dryly, “to stand in solidarity with them.” After all, he called this form of rebellion “the most modern and the most insane,” and he wanted to call the article in which this line appears “Iran’s Madness” (editors!). But note that the most mad form of rebellion is not said to be necessarily a specifically Muslim rebellion: It is simply the “revolt against global systems.” It could mean, in fact, the global justice movement. In which case it is me, I sincerely hope, and I hope it is you.

So let us not say that Foucault didn’t listen, just because he got taken in. That’s a risk you run when you listen. The other always speaks a different language.

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Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Dec. 1, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution

Continue ReadingFOUCAULT’S PERSIAN GULF 

BUSH’S “OVERSTRETCH” PROBLEM—AND OURS

BOOK REVIEW

Imperial Overstretch:
George W Bush and the Hubris of Empire
By Roger Burbach and Jim Tarbell
Zed Books, London, 2004

by Daniel Leal Diaz

In the optimistically-entitled Imperial Overstretch, Burbach and Tarbell credit the contemporary United States, “an imperial nation, flagrantly imposing its will on others,” with doing so more successfully and universally than any previous empire the world has seen. With the fall of the Communist bloc, the United States appropriated for itself the right to decide which governments are acceptable. For those governments deemed “unfit” to rule their own countries, the United States created the special doctrine of “preventive war,” holding that the US can attack any country that it perceives as a potential challenge to its hegemony.

This American righteousness is ostensibly based on the conviction that the virtues of the liberal democratic model need to be promoted and spread across the planet. For Burbach and Tarbell the real intention behind this democratic rhetoric is to “ensure that the US penetrates other countries’ economies”—the same motive which was behind the imposition of dictatorships in Latin America and elsewhere. The elite catchphrase of “free market democracies” is deconstructed as “controlled democracies that would recognize the prerogatives of international capital.”

The authors trace the rise of this “imperial nation” from its roots, predicated on westward territorial expansion, through the era of gunboat diplomacy in Latin America and classical “Yanqui imperialism” aimed at financial and market penetration, to the global anti-communist crusade of the Cold War. But it was only after the events of September 11, 2001 that the US has emerged as something unprecedented in all human history: a single unchallenged world empire, bent on controlling global oil supplies to assure continued global dominance. Under the guise of the “war on terrorism,” George W Bush—referred to throughout the book as a “dry drunk”—seized the opportunity to implement a project of “universal domination.”

Of the 189 member nations of the UN, the United States already had a military presence in 153. This was insufficient for Bush, whose government since 9-11 “has established fourteen new military bases extending from Eastern Europe through Iraq, the Persian Gulf, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.” As the invasion of Iraq loomed in 2002, former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia James Akin predicted: “The American oil companies are going to be the main beneficiaries of this war. We take over Iraq, install our regime, produce oil at the maximum rate and tell Saudi Arabia to go to hell.”

A central aspect of the book is the attempt to figure out the configuration of Bush’s “dry-drunk twisted view of the world.” More interesting than the question of how being a recovered alcoholic has infected Bush with a personal delusional hubris is that of the political alliance which has come together around his hubristic global program. A significant element of both configurations lies in the relation between politics and religion. The authors identify three principal pillars of this alliance.

The first is the corporate right or “neo-liberals,” who support a global expansion of “free trade” and a return to the values of the 19th century, “when ‘liberalism’ meant the right of wealthy international entrepreneurs to have rights of access to markets and resources anywhere on the planet.” The second are the “neo-conservatives,” the leading policy analysts of the big conservative foundations (funded by the corporate right) which “emulated the CIA’s post-war funding of former communists and leftists to counter the western European communist parties”—but this time to push through a domestic agenda of “American exceptionalism.” The authors dissect the web of these foundations (the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Project for the New American Century) and how their analysts and supporters found their way into the Bush administration (Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Elliot Abrams). The third pillar is the Christian right which “has inculcated the values of the corporate right into its theological fold.” This is the link to a grassroots voting bloc, and Bush’s personal conversion provides this bloc with a personal credibility.

To push beyond this bloc, Bush has played to the politics of fear. At the start of the Cold War, Senator Arthur Vandenberg said that the government had to “scare hell out of the American people” to make them accept the responsibilities of empire. Bush holds the same belief, unveiling the “Axis of Evil” concept to represent the new threat in his 2002 State of the Union address. This strategy of fear was also clearly visible in his State of the Union address in 2003, when he informed the world that “the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Bush added that “evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications and statements by people now in custody reveal that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al-Qaeda.” These claims have been largely disproven—but they served their propagandistic purpose, and helped facilitate the current US occupation of Iraq.

But this new imperialism—a “petro-military complex” that rules the world by force, ignoring international law—consumes enormous economic resources. The United States ran a budget deficit of $375 billion in 2003, and has not had a positive trade balance since 1975. “Militarily the US is so strong that nobody can meet it head on,” the authors quote one analyst. “Economically, however, it is vulnerable.” Hence overstretch.

The authors quote Yale historian Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, whose 1987 work they are clearly building on. Kennedy wrote that the United States “runs the risk, so familiar to historians of the rise and fall of previous Great Powers, of what might roughly be called ‘imperial overstretch.'” The United States is seriously overextended, they argue, and what appear to be manifestations of strength might in fact signal strategic weakness.

Other dangers of empire we are clearly already witnessing. Burbach and Tarbell warn: “The American empire, as in the time of Caesar’s Rome, could easily turn against the republic, creating a twisted, conflict-ridden society at war with itself.”

The architects of the new imperialism openly warn against the re-emergence of a second superpower. Burbach and Tarbell quote neo-conservative authors Lawrence F. Kaplan and William Kristol that the US must act to “prevent potential adversaries” from rising to rival or surpass the United States. But Burbach and Tarbell see a new kind of “second superpower” arising from an unexpected place—from below. They write:

“This power is rooted in the mobilization of popular forces on a global scale. It includes the anti-war and anti-globalization movements, the gatherings of the Porto Alegre Forum and a multitude of human rights and global justice organizations…”

The authors may commit the same error here as the neo-liberal and neo-conservative theorists they deride: that of reducing all world conflict to a single dimension. They write:

“There is indeed a global clash occurring. However, it is not between the Islamic and Western worlds, but between international corporate capital and the innumerable cultures, societies and civilizations that are undermined, uprooted and shattered as corporate capital expands its hold on the globe’s peoples and resources… The younger Bush and his ideologues refuse to acknowledge that ‘they hate us’ because of recurring US interventions around the globe, including the overthrow of democratic governments and US support of international terrorism well before the rise of al-Qaeda.”

This analysis is posed against the simplistic “clash of civilizations” theory of the conservative Samuel P. Huntington, which they call a “pseudo-intellectual” thesis that “feeds into xenophobic tendencies among Americans.” But clearly many on the “Islamic” side of Huntington’s equation also view the global conflict as one between the “Islamic and Western worlds,” and cast their own struggle in xenophobic terms.

The authors conclude that it is crucial to reject, demystify and ultimately replace the capitalist system that dominates the world. While acknowledging that this task will likely take centuries, they point to peasant land struggles in Brazil, the Bolivian movement against water privatization, and the emergence of local “alternative currencies” in the barrios of Argentina and the upstate New York town of Ithaca as examples of “de-comodification”—which could finally bring about “an end to the buying and selling of commodities for profit.” They call this struggle for de-comodification “the only way to change the global system of capitalism that burst out of Western Europe half a millennium ago, mediated by conquest and empire.”

Sadly, they don’t go into the specifics of the examples they cite, or elaborate how this process of de-comodification could be implemented. Nor do they sufficiently acknowledge that much of the actually-existing opposition to Bush’s new imperialism on the global stage comes from forces not thinking in terms of de-commodification so much as extreme religious fundamentalism—paradoxically mirroring that which they oppose.

The authors strike a dubious chord when they state “today, in the aftermath of the Iraqi war, it is eminently clear that the United States is in a state of imperial decline.” They argue that we are in an “interregnum” such as that between the first two world wars, that the fundamental contradictions of the global system are yet to play themselves out. But the multi-polar world of the inter-war era was very different from that of the current unipolar reality. George W Bush may have “launched the United States on a path of imperial overstretch,” but the empire is not seriously threatened by any other power. And the grassroots democratic forces which the authors pose in that role, at least potentially, are now subject to their own dangerous overstretch: having to oppose not only corporate globalization but the seemingly unending military crusade.

Burbach and Tarbell look hopefully to a post-imperial planet at the other end of the “interregnum,” writing that “the very concept of empire in any form is proving antiquated and incompatible with the winds of popular change, resistance and upheaval that have been unleashed in the epoch of globalization.” Whether those winds will finally prevail may be determined generations from now.

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Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Nov. 1, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution

Continue ReadingBUSH’S “OVERSTRETCH” PROBLEM—AND OURS 

GLOBALIZING LIBERATION—AFTER 9-11

BOOK REVIEW

Globalize Liberation:
How to Uproot the System and Build a Better World
Edited by David Solnit
City Lights, San Francisco, 2004

by Gavin Sewell and Vilosh Vinograd

The stated goal is very ambitious: “Globalize Liberation was created as a resource of hands-on tools, ideas and examples to aid in our efforts to gain control of our lives and our communities, and ultimately to change the world we live in. It is intended to help individuals, groups, and movements to deepen their understanding of what’s wrong and why, to create a vision of alternatives, and to develop strategies for creating change.”

Globalize Liberation indeed paints a useful picture of the anti-capitalist movement since the Zapatista uprising and Seattle, and several of the essays in the anthology are excellent. But it’s hard to tell for whom this book was intended. It’s not systematic or didactic enough to be effective as an introduction for people with no experience in activism; the essays do a good job of describing our situation but generally don’t argue as if expecting either disagreement or complete ignorance. On the other hand, few of the essays go into enough depth or detail to be revelatory to any veteran activist. Most of the book ambles along in a frustrating gray area.

More importantly, a conceptual flaw is revealed by how much larger Seattle and Chiapas loom in the book than 9-11. Editor David Solnit—leading light of the Bay Area-based group Art and Revolution, which creates many of the giant puppets and props seen at anti-globalization protests in recent years—has assembled contributors similarly seasoned by years of experience in this movement. But, like the movement as a whole, they generally do not address what has changed since September 2001: how the war for resources and labor represented by “globalization” has become an actual shooting war, while US unilateralism has punctured the facade of a seamlessly “globalized capitalism.” Solnit’s 14-page introduction doesn’t even mention 9-11, and only briefly touches on the Iraq war.

The anthology is divided into three sections, “What’s the Problem?,” “How to Change Things,” and, “Ideas in Action.” Not surprisingly, “What’s the Problem?” is by far the strongest section overall. Cindy Milstein of Vermont’s Institute for Social Ecology contributes a clear, concise overview of basic anarchist theory and spirit that could serve as a good introduction to the subject. Citing the classical Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, she expounds on the nation-state and capital as twin pillars of an inherently centralizing and anti-democratic system. Invoking New England town meetings as a “fragment” survival of more human, decentralized models, she poses the movement toward direct democracy as part of a broader historical tendency.

George Caffentzis of the indispensable Midnight Notes Collective offers an original, astute analysis of the World Trade Center attacks. He notes how an economic “liberalization” scheme within Saudi Arabia instituted in 2000 allowed foreigners to buy parts of Islam’s holy land, making a strong case that the attacks were carried out the next year as a direct reaction to this policy. The “liberalization” only expanded after 9-11—prompting further attacks within Saudi Arabia, in a vicious cycle. Caffentzis says the “war on terrorism” is really the “struggle over control of the earth’s oil and gas.”

But even this section insufficiently grapples with how 9-11 has entrenched the imperial system—and diverted the momentum that had been building since the November 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization. Walden Bello of Focus on the Global South optimistically writes: “Since September 11, global capitalism has continued to lose legitimacy…” Perhaps, but the protest mobilizations against the WTO and World Bank have been smaller since then, and activist energies have been deflected into protesting the Iraq occupation.

Even Chris Hables Gray in his chapter on war and globalization (the last in the “What’s the Problem?” section) barely mentions 9-11. He also writes with optimism that “our current international system is based on nation-states and their decline opens up a real opportunity, actually a necessity, to demilitarize politics.” Again, could be—but the collapse of nation-states in (for instance) the Balkans and Somalia has only meant an increase in militarism and an occasion for US interventionism. The emergence of “non-state actors” on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq has provided a pretext for Washington to suspend the Geneva Conventions, the only minimal legal restraints on state militarism.

In what’s probably the most important chapter of this book for activists, Van Jones goes behind enemy lines and describes what he saw from the inside of the February 2002 World Economic Forum in New York City. (A veteran of the Seattle protests, he was mysteriously invited to the WEF summit as a “Global Leader for Tomorrow.”) One of his observations is worth quoting. Jones found that the ruling elite in the Waldorf-Astoria “loved the protesters. In fact, most attendees took the demonstration—and the huge police response—as an affirmation of their own self-impotence. It was almost as if a bunch of really nerdy kids were chanting and marching around the coolest frat-house on campus.” Jones provides serious food for thought for anyone doing conventional street protest.

The “How to Change Things” section of course provides a greater challenge than delineating what’s wrong—and runs into bigger problems. A good example is longtime nonviolence theorist George Lakey’s essay “Strategizing for a Living Revolution.” In a 25-page essay he gives only one page to consciousness-raising and the creation of a new non-capitalist culture. The rest of his essay explains what you do to build and be effective as a revolutionary organization once you’ve done this. This is an instructive discussion, with case studies including Argentina’s piqueteros and Serbia’s Otpor, providing some very useful material for any existing mass movement. For example, to combat police brutality the kids in Otpor would go to the homes of violent cops and show pictures of their beaten comrades to the neighbors, family, and children. After a few months of doing this they had (peacefully) intimidated most of the Serbian police force into retreating from violent repression. Otpor’s slogan was “It only hurts when you’re scared.” The stories of middle class people joining piqueteros to beat the walls of banks are also inspiring. But these were situations where extreme repression (Serbia) or extreme economic devastation (Argentina) had already galvanized a large people’s movement. Here in the US, we face the bizarre challenge of a downtrodden population which by and large doesn’t feel oppressed. Glossing over the stage of consciousness and culture-building seems like writing a how-to book on horse racing with 24 chapters on how to spend the money you’ll win at the Triple Crown and only one on how to train a horse.

Something of the same lack of pragmatism weakens the essays on the Argentine uprising, the Zapatistas, the U’wa indigenous resistance to Occidental Petroleum in Colombia, and most of the “Ideas in Action” section of the book. None of the essays explore the question of how we translate the concepts of these actions into the realities of the “first word.” Globalize Liberation was published in North America, and was presumably written mostly for North Americans. Could the propagation techniques of the Zapatistas work here? How about the tactics of the Argentine direct-democracy assemblies? How would they need to be modified? Where are these pragmatic questions addressed?

Manuel Callahan’s chapter “Zapatismo Beyond Chiapas” takes an admirable stab at it, but would need another hundred pages to make a serious dent in the problem. Marina Sitrin describes the Argentine struggle in enough detail to be useful and also writes some of the best prose in the book. What Sitrin and Callahan both see as critical are the imagination and flexibility of these movements, their spontaneity and non-traditional, non-hierarchical approaches to organizing. What neither of them have space to get into here are the psychological and social differences between Latin Americans and citizens of the US; what can we wards of a cold, technocratic society do to reverse the erosion of traditions of social solidarity still vibrant south of the border?

Keir Milburn’s essay on creative protest tactics in Italy could answer some of the problems raised by Van Jones. Milburn tells how Italian activists use foam padding and home-made body armor, blurring the lines between violent and non-violent protest. These padded anti-globalization protestors, or “turtles,” could stand their ground against club-wielding riot-cops without having to physically fight them. By blockading without hurting the police they managed to score both tactical and PR victories. This ties in with the kind of creative flexibility Sitrin and Callahan describe in their essays, and it makes for interesting reading on its own. In fact, most of the essays in the last section of the book are interesting; what’s doubtful is how many of them are useful at this stage or our struggle.

Finally, there’s the back cover. In the lower right is a pretend bar-code with stick people escaping from it, as if from behind prison bars, to mock the idea of bar-codes. Bar-codes certainly should be ridiculed, but over on the lower left-hand corner of the book is…a real bar-code. A bar code may be a necessity of getting the book out to a wide readership. But the self-parody may also betray the obvious contradictions that make it easy for most Americans to ignore us and our ideas.

In summary, Globalize Liberation is an imperfectly conceived anthology with some really great essays in it. It is also an attempt to write a kind of book that really needs to be written. It’s much easier to criticize than to create, and editor Solnit and his contributors deserve credit for stepping up to fill a void. We need to forge intellectual weapons against the capitalist establishment, and despite its problems, Globalize Liberation is a sign that we’re trying.

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See also WW4 REPORT’s coverage of the February 2002 WEF protests in NYC
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Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Oct. 1, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution

Continue ReadingGLOBALIZING LIBERATION—AFTER 9-11 

AN ACCIDENTAL DISSIDENT FROM THE BIN LADEN DYNASTY

BOOK REVIEW

INSIDE THE KINGDOM
My Life in Saudi Arabia
by Carmen Bin Ladin
Warner Books, 2004

by Chesley Hicks

“Socially, Saudi Arabia is medieval, dark with sin and interdiction,” opens chapter seven of Carmen Bin Ladin’s chronicle of the years she spent married to Yeslam Bin Ladin, one of the infamous Osama’s 22 brothers.

In her 2004 memoir, recently out in paperback, the Western-raised, half-Swiss, half-Persian Bin Ladin (the book refers to Carmen and Yeslam as Bin Ladin, and the rest of the clan, including the notorious brother, as Bin Laden) outlines how she came to meet and marry a young Saudi Arabian jetsetter, leave her Geneva home, and endure life for nine years as a near-captive on his family compound in the Arabian desert.

Bin Ladin describes how the path to this fate really began with her mother. Far from fundamentalist, but nonetheless socially conventional, Carmen’s mother was eager for her eldest daughter to find a husband after her own husband—Carmen’s father, a Swiss man—abruptly left her. Carmen says that when she first met her future husband in Geneva, both were young, idealistic, and living Western lives. At the time, his family—who were taking a long vacation in Geneva—also struck the author as open-minded and even hip. However, as she gradually became acquainted with Yeslam’s family on their own turf, Carmen recognized that her husband was different from the rest—more progressive and appreciative of her Western values and autonomy—just as she was radically different from the Bin Laden clan’s subjugated wives and sisters. Even so, when the oil boom hit Saudi Arabia in the ’70s and it became apparent that colossal cash piles could be collected doing business there, Carmen and Yeslam decided to make a go of it in the desert kingdom.

Before moving there for good after the birth of their first daughter, the couple made several trips to Saudi Arabia, the earliest in order to procure the Saudi King’s mandatory permission to marry. From beneath an abaya—the compulsory head-to-toe covering for Saudi women—Carmen made her prescient first encounter with Saudi Arabia: “I watched the desert approach as we landed. The light through the black gauze cloth was so dim, I didn’t know if this new country was simply the darkest, dimmest place I had ever seen, or if the cloth across my eyes was preventing me from seeing anything that was there.”

Her ensuing Saudi wedding was likewise foreboding. “I waited, in my abaya, in the car,” she writes. “Yeslam and Ibrahim [his brother] brought me out a book that I had to sign. That was the marriage register… Then someone took the book back and we were married.” On this first visit to Saudi Arabia and with each subsequent one, Carmen portrays her increasing awareness of Saudi culture’s deeply entrenched misogyny, utter disregard for women’s welfare, and penchant for violent oppression. Yet she says that when the young couple arrived there to live, she was optimistic. “I thought [wearing the abaya] was temporary,” she writes. “Jeddah was booming, and foreigners had come flocking to the country… I assumed that Saudi culture would move into the modern world, just as other cultures had.” Writing in hindsight, Carmen seems alternately appreciative of and dismayed by her naive temerity, which she says was born both of her youth and having been a teenager in the revolutionary-feeling sixties. Coming from what appears to have been a sheltered, wealthy environment, it’s fair to say she found her Altamont in Saudi Arabia, 1979.

From 1976 to 1979, Carmen witnessed massive, breakneck modern development in Saudi Arabia. Though the culture followed at a glacial pace—she spent those years adjusting to harsh Saudi protocols, learning to circumscribe her public behavior while creating a liberal safe haven within her own home—she describes a relative loosening of fundamentalist strictures. Women began to appear in public without the full abaya, some of the Bin Laden wives brought their children to the birthday parties Carmen threw for her daughters (observation of birthdays is considered sacrilege by some strict Saudi Muslims). But it all came to a grinding halt in 1979 with the overthrow of the Shah of Iran. The Iranian revolution caused panic in the royal family, which was already straining between the pull of the austere Wahabist Islam it purported to uphold and many of the royal family members’ libertine inclinations. “The more debauched princes,” Carmen writes, “continued indulging in their privately lavish lifestyles, while at the same time the royal family enforced increasing restrictions on the ordinary people they ruled.” Nearly overnight, the kingdom’s streets reverted to its brutish, tribal past, the culture of which Carmen spends a good portion of her book dissecting—revealing the parts to be even less appealing than the desiccated whole.

Throughout book—sometimes with a redundancy perhaps resounding with the years spent silent on the matter, and with how intensely she believes it a threat to the world—Carmen depicts a Saudi culture as crude as the oil that sustains it. She contrasts the culture of Saudi Islam with the Persian Islamic culture of her grandmother: “The Saudi version of Islam—Wahabism—is ferocious in its enforcement of a stark and ancient social code. This is not a complex intellectual culture like that of Iran or Egypt.” In her view, contemporary Saudi Arabia amounts to little more than a primitive tribal society that stumbled upon a whole lotta money, which has brought the country gross material wealth and power but not a whit of sophistication or enlightenment. She offers vivid, succinct depictions of the ways in which the Saudis have adopted garish and gaudy simulations of Western opulence without any sense of form or function She describes her first impression of her mother-in-law’s home: “It was a relief to take off my abaya. Suddenly the light inside the house seemed blinding. There were so many chandeliers blazing, it was like stepping into a lamp shop… The lack of sophistication surprised me. I had imagined an exotic Oriental abode, like in the movies, or like my grandmother’s home in Iran. After all, Yeslam’s father had been one of the richest men in Saudi Arabia. But this was just a basic house furnished in poor taste.” She also presents numerous examples of comically absurd but painfully oppressive Saudi moral bureaucracy, generally employed to keep women lowly.

And where she thought she might find sorority among the repressed women with whom she lived in the Bin Laden compound, she instead found relationships among wives and sisters to be superficial and catty—a consequence in part of their being relentlessly segregated, herded, and quartered like breeding heifers. Carmen depicts many Saudi women as spiritually and intellectually lobotomized, forced to get by on the favors they are able to curry from the men who control them, usually by dint of deceit and manipulation. Their dynamic reflects a concentration camp mentality—the sense that there are never enough resources to go around and what is given to another extracts from one’s own welfare. This might seem strange in as wealthy a nation as Saudi Arabia, but polygamy is the norm there—so it seems each wife knows she is only as good as her last performance. Even the wives’ forays into lesbianism come off as desperate attempts to compensate for what they don’t get from men and aren’t allowed to do for themselves. Carmen addresses these behaviors with varying degrees of compassion and resentment, and of course takes care to detail the exceptions—a handful of women with whom she could relate, including some who remained close following her estrangement from the kingdom.

And the men in Carmen’s kingdom are generally craven-hearted brutes wearing complacent veneers. By adolescence, Carmen says, boys have learned to control their own mothers with an arrogance and sense of entitlement bred deeply into them. Within the family, they are subject mainly to birth order. The formerly nomadic tribes relied heavily on patrilineal clan organization: still in full effect today according to Carmen. “Families are headed by patriarchs and obedience to the patriarch is absolute,” she writes. “The only values that count in Saudi Arabia are loyalty and submission—first to Islam then to the clan.”

Carmen says she got by not just pursuing illusory Saudi liberalism, but by going on a mission to educate herself on the country’s history and the inextricably entangled intrigues of the Saudi royal and Bin Laden families. She achieved her goal by listening to the conversations around her and reading books and newspapers smuggled in from elsewhere. Apparently the governmental watchdogs dared not investigate luggage or packages bearing the Bin Laden name, so she even was able to access information that was critical of the royal family.

The result of that inquiry helps make Inside the Kingdom the compelling read it is. Carmen connects what’s going on in her personal life to what’s happening globally and in Saudi Arabia in particular. It’s a view into Saudi culture and a political history lesson, shown in the unfolding of the author’s personal saga.

Carmen’s rendition of modern Saudi affairs resides largely in an examination of legacy, which is a recurring theme in the book. She frames the current state of the Bin Laden family as reflective of each brother’s relationship to the pious, self-made, and shrewd patriarch, Sheik Mohammed Bin Laden, who had 22 wives and 54 children before he died at age 59 in a plane crash—rumored to have occurred en route to his taking a 23rd wife. “Sadly,” Carmen writes, “none of his children has ever really measured up to Sheikh Mohamed,” her misgivings about the family he spawned oddly notwithstanding her admiration for the legend of the man she never met. One doesn’t have to read too far between Inside the Kingdom‘s lines to see that Carmen craves a father figure.

Similarly, Carmen identifies her haste to marry as, in part, answering her mother’s insecurity and concern for appearances—something that she says was not of her mother’s true character but a carry-over from her Iranian upbringing that only expressed itself after she was humiliated by her husband’s departure. (Carmen’s mother never admitted her divorce to her own family). “That is what it meant to me to be from the Middle East,” Carmen writes. “You lived behind secrets. You hid things that were disagreeable.” It is not clear when in Carmen’s life she fully figured this out, though she describes an epiphany—one of a few in the book—she had upon returning to Iran as an adult. Though she maintains her respect for the rich and ancient Iranian culture, she describes having been devastated to find that life on Iran’s streets did not resemble the aristocratic gardens within the walls of her grandmother’s estate she visited as a child. Carmen says she told Yeslam when she first met him that she would never marry, as she didn’t want to see her children abandoned by a father as she and her three sisters were. Yet about 15 years later, that is precisely the predicament in which Carmen finds herself.

And in that vein, the dissolution of the Saudi royal family itself can be seen as a microcosm of modern Saudi Arabia. Carmen says there are rumored to be some 25,000 in the Saudi clan now, and she portrays the generation coming to dominate the country as remarkably shiftless. They all receive some stipend or another from the country’s oil wealth and believe themselves above work (Carmen depicts Saudis relying heavily upon yet abusing their foreign hired help, treating them as slaves). Add to that the Saudi belief that, as the caretakers of Mecca, they are a chosen people, and you have delusional, dysfunctional elite—yet depicted as possessing little substance with which to fill their lives. One can only wonder how that legacy will unfold when the oil wells begin to run dry.

Returning to the Bin Laden legacy: there is the book’s tacitly central character of Osama, and there is Yeslam. Among Carmen’s chief reasons for writing her memoir, she says, was the opportunity to exonerate her daughters and herself from the scourge wrought on their surname, and to warn the world of the roiling Saudi threat. Osama, she says, was neither a black sheep nor an exalted member of the Bin Laden family while she lived in the compound. She met him only briefly on a few occasions and comes to no definitive conclusion about him other than that his pious commitment to strict fundamentalism and its causes celebres seemed to earn him increasing respect in polarized, backward-sliding Saudi society. Near the book’s conclusion she writes: “I cannot believe that the Bin Ladens have cut Osama off completely. I simply can’t see them depriving a brother of his annual dividend from their father’s company, and sharing it among themselves. This would be unthinkable—among the Bin Ladens, no matter what a brother does, he remains a brother.” She also says: “It’s certainly possible that Osama retains ties to the royal family, too. The Bin Ladens and the princes work together, very closely. They are secretive and they are united.” On 9-ll she asserts: “Though they have made a few public statements condemning the tragedy, neither clan has gone to any length to prove that they have not given Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaida moral and financial support in the past, and that they are currently not doing so.”

Yeslam, as it turns out, succumbs to neuroses and, ultimately, to the pull of the clan’s gravity. According to Carmen, Saudi Arabia is a nation of wealthy hypochondriacs who fly across the globe to visit their various favorite doctors and collect prescriptions. Her husband, whose level-headed, intelligent composure had always impressed her, eventually joins and then even surpasses their obsessive ranks. She watches as he slips deeper into anxiety disorder, becoming phobic, distant, and, finally, estranged. It’s hard not to feel the parallels between his trajectory and that of his country. He ascends his family’s stature-ladder, defying birth order, establishing contacts within the royal family, and making a name for himself as a highly successful businessman. He marries a Western woman to whom he intimately and intellectually relates, while always managing to maintain face in traditional Saudi culture as it catapults into Western capitalism. But eventually his sanity splinters, his own psychiatric decline and the subsequent deterioration of his marriage mirroring the kingdom’s decent into fractured consciousness.

It seems that as Carmen was finishing her book, she was still involved in a protracted, painful divorce from Yeslam. She says that as she watched Yeslam lose his sanguine self-possession, she also saw him drawn further into the recesses of Saudi moral despotism. When she recognizes that she’s losing him as an ally, she realizes that she and her daughters are close to becoming true captives in Saudi Arabia. Her daughters are coming of age–and becoming subject to the Saudi interpretation of womanhood. Finally, with of one of their annual visits to Switzerland, they simply don’t return to the desert. Then the marriage disintegrates. Carmen says that though he was living in Geneva, Yeslam became ever more Saudi, and even started cheating on her. They divorce. The odd thing is that Yelsam stays in Switzerland, too, but lives an entirely separate life and eventually denies the existence of his daughters. According to Carmen, he used his might and money to try to extradite all of their daughters to Saudi Arabia—even though he’d asked her to abort her pregnancy with the third daughter—where she would lose access to them. Apparently parts of their battle became public news in Switzerland—something one imagines might also have compelled Carmen to set the record straight with a book.

Though there are some holes in the telling, one tends to believe Carmen’s story comes from the heart, and that her insights are solid. Her tale is a memoir, yet it’s not as forthcoming as it could be. For instance, she never reveals the source of her birth family’s wealth, though it’s apparent and certainly shapes her experiences and perspective on the world. (Hell, I doubt you meet and marry a Bin Laden if you’re not rich to begin with.) Sometimes you get the feeling that as far out on limb as she’s gone to tell her story, she’s still holding back at times—maybe a remnant of her mother’s secretive conventionalism.

She offers lucid views into many of the kingdom’s angles and shadows, but Carmen says little about the intimate intertwining of US and Saudi legacies. Her approach is uncritical of Western values, coming rather from a vantage of unmitigated gratitude for the freedoms the West offers in relief to Mideastern oppressions. Indeed she even sees in the rigors of her own divorce from Yeslam an epochal struggle against Saudi tyranny. In the conclusion, she says that she fears for her and her three daughters’ safety in the wake of the book’s release. But a year later, it doesn’t seem to have roused dire controversy. Maybe it’s because she never injured Allah in her writing, or perhaps it is because her words are too close to the truth.

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For more on the Bin Laden dynasty see:

WW4 REPORT #43
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WW4 REPORT #28
/28.html#shadows1

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Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Sept. 1, 2005

Reprinting permissible with attribution

Continue ReadingAN ACCIDENTAL DISSIDENT FROM THE BIN LADEN DYNASTY 

AND THE GIANT SUV THAT IS AMERICA GOES OFF THE CLIFF…


THE LONG EMERGENCY
Surviving the End of the Oil Age, Climate Change, and Other Converging Disasters of the Twenty-First Century
by James Kunstler
Grove/Atlantic, 2005

by Tim Corrigan

Hate Walmart and Hummers? Good news! The end of them is nigh–but you’ll have little time to enjoy their demise as you huddle in the cold and dark ten years from now and scramble for food to avoid your own end… James Kunstler’s The Long Emergency is about the approach of the peak of global oil production and its aftermath, and he argues that the foreseen disasters will happen much sooner than we expect and without much warning. He also argues that our blinders on this issue and lack of preparation will make the ensuing disaster even worse than it might otherwise be.

Peak oil is the idea first described by M. King Hubbert, a geologist working for Shell Oil, who created a mathematical relationship to describe the time between the peak of exploration and the peak of production, and how production will decline over time. In other words, some time after you realize you are finding less new oil fields, you can use this curve to figure out approximately when you will start producing less oil, and from that you can roughly determine when your lights will go out.

The peak of global oil discoveries was in 1964, and the peak of global production may have already occurred. At current rates of consumption, that would give an absolute maximum of about 37 years between the peak and the definitive end of the oil-based economy–and, as he emphasizes, the first half was the oil that was easy to find and extract. Additionally, global consumption is growing as China and India ramp up their consumer economies.

Due to what he calls “the rear view mirror” effect, we’ll only wake up to the decline after we’re already in it. Some disruptive global event similar to the 1973 OPEC embargo will occur, and prices will find a new level far higher than now. The high oil-consuming nations realize that we have entered the era of permanent scarcity.

Kunstler’s argument is that we have already reached the point he calls “overshoot,” where no matter how well-intentioned and hard-working we are in addressing the issue (assuming, for a second, our country had any serious intention of working hard on this issue) we are in for a hard landing that may disrupt civilization for an indefinite amount of time. We’re using what he calls a one-time endowment of millions of years of accumulated solar energy in the form of oil to subsidize American civilization’s greatest “achievement”–sprawl. We can’t get that energy back, and he argues that no other form of fuel will allow that level of energy concentration needed to make car culture possible. And the very size of our investment in the suburbs and our sense of entitlement as Americans will, he argues, prevent us from taking any steps to start dealing with our energy issues seriously. For suburbanites, it is literally unthinkable that we would have to give up our cars.

When you wish upon a star…

Kunstler attacks what he sees as the American tendency to think that because we have solved many technical problems in the past, we will auto-magically come up with something that will fix our lack of oil, just in time. He calls this the “Jiminy Cricket effect,” where we seem to believe that just wishing will make it so. In one chapter he quickly runs through half a dozen alternative energy technologies, and dispatches almost all of them in a few pages. To one extent or another, he describes them as being either simply infeasible or indirectly dependent on oil to create. For example, the production of solar panels is dependent on oil energy. Panels are made out of plastic and silicon – the manufacturing process requires oil, and some of the actual material comes from oil products. And panels are useless without batteries created from petroleum byproducts. Hydrogen is simply a storage medium for energy, but is not energy itself. He sees nuclear as one option that would produce more juice than it loses, but argues that at this point America will not be able to build enough of a nuclear infrastructure to keep the lights on–partly because people aren’t scared enough yet to overcome NIMBY attitudes.

Kunstler dismisses a huge number of new technologies, many of which have already reached feasibility on a limited scale. It’s true that renewables are a tiny fraction of a percent of our energy use now, but the technologies are still maturing, and people have not had a reason yet to use them on a large scale because oil was at $10 a barrel only three years ago. To use an analogy from digital technology: we had digital cameras for consumers for almost a decade before they became popular, and then they went from no penetration to virtually supplanting film cameras in less than a decade. Solar cells have roughly tripled in efficiency in the last 15 years, become common in certain applications, and are spreading to new ones every day. Wind power has reache economic viability in many places without subsidies.

To say that all of these technologies are impossible to build without oil is ludicrous–many forms of metal production actually use electricity as their main form of power. Wind is not as convenient or high-grade a power source as oil (you can’t plug your car into a windmill; some storage mechanism is required), but we have a lot of plains and coastlines where it could be easily exploited.

Wind power also requires aluminum and steel, and Kunstler says that we will not be able to extract the raw materials for this renewable energy push when we need them. On the other hand, if we are moving beyond SUV’s and Walmarts, obviously a lot of recyclable raw materials–metals and plastics in particular–will already be close at hand in the vast lots of suddenly immobilized Hummers and Excursions.

To be fair, his argument is that these technologies might be possible for a large portion of the power we will need, but they will not allow suburbia to continue as it has. He may be right about this, or maybe not. The needs of most commuters could be served fairly well by a number of technologies that exist, or are close to economic viability–for example, a car in Italy was developed to use compressed air as its power source. It might look more like a scooter with a roof than a Hummer, but if that was the car that your typical American could afford they’d no doubt take it over a bicycle or trains. The suburbs may become smaller and more dense, but there is no reason we could not rebuild streetcar lines where we currently have major highways.

However, Kunstler may still be correct in his overall scenario, since even if the renewable energy technologies end up being feasible, we may not choose to deploy enough renewable energy soon enough to prevent the disasters predicted in The Long Emergency.

Kunstler seems driven to quickly get these alternative energy sources out of the way so he can get on to his main topic–the collapse of suburbia and the drive-thru lifestyle. He has written several other books about suburbia and its impact on American life–most notably 1993’s The Geography of Nowhere–and he sets up a scenario where our sprawl will simply disintegrate as people are unable to get the energy they need to commute. All of us who don’t like the Walmartization of American culture will have some reason to cheer–as the oil that makes the products cheaply and transports them 12,000 miles runs out, we will find the big box stores drying up and blowing away. The very scale that they operate at will make them unable to continue, as consumers can no longer drive 80 miles round trip to buy tchotchkes from China. The problem is, however, that we will be looking to replace everything we currently import with things produced locally–which we don’t have the expertise or supply chain to do any more–just around the time that we’re running out of energy and dealing with the impact of global warming.

The stuff we buy used to be made in the town where we lived–there were local clothing mills, shoe makers, metal smiths, not to mention farmers nearby. First with the railroad, and then with trucks and planes, we’ve stretched this to the point where if we aren’t bringing containers in from China, we will have no clothes. Our produce is increasingly from Mexico. Car parts are also from China and Mexico. Electronics are almost entirely produced overseas. In other words, we can’t maintain our current way of doing things if international trade shuts down for any length of time. Worse yet, the chain of human skills necessary to get the factories going again is gone.

In fact, the way he sees things, the big, looming, obvious disaster is likely to distract us from seeing the equally huge but less obvious disasters to follow. Networks that we have built around plentiful energy will suddenly stop working, with additional disastrous, unforeseen side effects. One example is the natural gas network–right now this is the cooking and heating fuel for millions of urban consumers; however, the natural gas supply depends on a minimum level of pressure in the lines. Below that, air gets into the lines, and the utility companies are forced to shut off the supply temporarily to rebuild the pressure. Some of the pilot lights in hot water heaters around the country might not go back on by themselves, causing gas explosions. If all of this happened during winter, skyscrapers could face a situation where their heat is off and forty stories of plumbing freezes and explodes–a scenario he claims almost happened in the winter of 2003. (A similar unexpected follow-on happened during the blackout of summer 2003, where people found that after the electricity went out they also couldn’t get gas because the pumps were all electric.)

The end result of these disasters, Kunstler believes, is that it will be impossible to organize a rational response to the problem as many different systems crucial to our society break down simultaneously. For instance, Kunstler predicts disruption of our food supply. Hydrocarbons are the feedstock of our “green revolution.” Beyond the fact that the fixings for the average Caesar salad travel 2,000 miles before they reach your plate, hydrocarbons are the base for the fertilizers and pesticides that we liberally spray on our fields and crops to increase yields to unnatural levels. He argues that really without hydrocarbons the “green revolution” does not exist, and we are in a situation where we will have billions of people more than we can support.


“One might take the view that World War Three has already started and we are well into it.”

While Kunstler argues for the end of big box stores and for a return to a more sustainable, local life, he is more a follower of realpolitick than a liberal. He was for the war in Iraq–because it was for oil.

“Of course [the war] was about oil… But members of the anti-war lobby were just as likely to be car-dependent suburbanites as Bush supporters were. At least that was my observation among my fellow middle aged yuppies in upstate New York. One family in my neighborhood had a sign in their yard that said ‘War is Not the Answer’–and had two SUV’s parked in the driveway.”

He argues that the war was the only rational response that a society as oil-dependent as ours could have had, as our supply was put in great danger by the erratic Baghdad regime. He thinks we should have eliminated Hussein and left. It seems Kunstler believes we should have gotten our society to a sustainable point long ago so all of this wouldn’t be necessary–but since we haven’t, we will have less and less latitude to act rationally as the crisis comes on us. Once we’re cold and hungry, we’ll support anyone who can keep the lights on, including, as he puts it “corn pone Nazis.”

At that point, we’ll still be in the Middle East, but current fig leaves of pretending to care about democracy there (or here) will vanish, as we are “forced” to occupy all of the Persian Gulf states to secure our fix of oil. Once we’ve alienated the Muslim world, they will destroy enough of the oil infrastructure to force us to withdraw (or make it pointless to stay), and China will be there to pick up the pieces–assuming there are pieces left to pick up. The global disaster could happen in a way that we don’t initially realize is connected to the struggle for oil–in much the same way that World War I was (to appearances) ignited by an assassination of one man.

Kunstler also predicts the crisis will bring world regionalization. Once the cheap transportation fuel is gone, globalization will be over–so over, in fact, that all regions of the world, and even constituent parts of large countries, will be left to muddle through as best they can on their own. Europe is very well prepared for this future already, since the cities there have little suburban sprawl, and distances are small. Local agriculture using sustainable methods has continued uninterrupted, and many of the European countries are well along in preparing for the end of oil–for example Denmark gets 15% of its power from wind already, and France gets 70% of its power from nuclear. Europe’s main problem is that a little ice age may occur as global warming shuts down the Gulf Stream conveyor of warm water that keeps the continent from freezing over.

In the United States, in contrast, the size of our country and the scale of the disaster will leave our regions to very different fates. Residents of the Southwest will wake up to the fact that they are in the desert, and 30 million or more people will need to move somewhere else–but not before a small war is fought with local Chicano insurgents seeking to establish the region as the Mexican-American homeland “Aztlan,” or re-unite it with Mexico.

The Great Plains will be marginally better off, and will largely de-populate as the current method of farming with fossil water becomes impossible with depletion of the aquifers. The Southeast will return to its agricultural, feudal roots. The Northeast and the Northwest will fare the better than the rest of the country due to climate, water supplies and culture, but the Northwest may be beset by Asian pirates.

This is one of the strangest predictions of The Long Emergency. For some reason, although he predicts the Gulf Stream conveyor will shut down and Europe will suddenly be in a little ice age, and “everything will become more local,” Asian pirates will ravage our West Coast after sailing 7,000 miles across the Pacific. It’s hard to understand why Europeans plunged into a new Dark Age will not also be a problem on our East Coast. I guess he never heard of the Vikings. Meanwhile, Mexicans will overthrow El Norte to reclaim an uninhabitable desert. Much of this seems to be a little bit of sensationalism to make the book more exciting. As I read these perhaps slightly racist sections, I found myself thinking that if Kunstler’s nightmare scenario ever does happen, we’re going to need every campesino we can find to teach us how to survive again as subsistence farmers.

Kunstler’s sheer catalog of catastrophes leaves a reader overwhelmed – global warming, but also a potential new ice age, the end of fossil water in the Great Plains, new diseases, natural gas shortages, economic collapse, wars for oil, wars for water, famine, piracy, rioting, and the list goes on. The Long Emergency ends up being like a Khmer Rouge fantasy of all of humanity forced to move back to the land in one huge Peak Oil Year Zero. If you follow this vision of the future–if you don’t just give up immediately–your next move should be to quickly acquire a skill like candle-making or shoeing horses and move out of the city. He offers some consolations in this nightmare future, as local communities rebuild–but to get there we end up abandoning many of our larger cities, and incidentally millions of people starve to death, kill each other or die in disease waves.

Kunstler is at his most effective where he is talking about our social and political obstacles to change. Our investment in the suburbs is such at this point that any talk of change would mean destroying virtually our entire economy as it now exists. In fact, he argues that except for the illusory industry of building the suburbs, we haven’t really had any economic growth of any kind in the last forty years–and that seems about right. He assails the assumption that we could have an entire economy based on cutting each other’s hair as being a fantasy. The parts of the book that critique suburban culture are good. The main problem with The Long Emergency is its use of questionable science to close off entire parts of the debate. It still provides a sobering look at a near worst-case scenario of where our culture’s momentum might take us if we fail to change our direction.

RESOURCES:

The Long Emergency excerpt, Rolling Stone, March 2005, online at TruthOut: http://www.truthout.org/cgi-bin/artman/exec/view.cgi/38/9893

See also WW4 REPORT’s ongoing coverage of the global oil crisis
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Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Aug. 1, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution

http://WW4Report.com






Continue ReadingAND THE GIANT SUV THAT IS AMERICA GOES OFF THE CLIFF… 

PARANOIA ON ROUTE 66

An Algerian Immigrant’s Kafkaesque Journey in Post-9-11 America

by Bill Weinberg

Still Moments
A Story About Faded Dreams & Forbidden Pictures
Zighen Aym
ZAWP, POB 411, Mossville, IL 61552-411

Of all the nightmares which have befallen immigrants from the Islamic world since the September 11 attacks, those related in this short self-published memoir, Still Moments, are far from the most egregious. But the nearly surreal ironies of this story, and the straightforward, almost innocent way it is told, make it a powerful testament to how freedom is contracting as our leaders wage wars in the name of expanding freedom. As if synchronicity had conspired to drive home this point, the critical incident on which the tale turns takes place on Route 66, fabled in song (Chuck Berry) and story (Jack Kerouac) as a symbol of the uniquely American freedom of the Open Road.

The (probably pseudonymous) protagonist, Zighen Aym, who tells his tale in the first person, is a middle-class professional working as a mechanical engineer for an unnamed company in central Illinois. He is a husband and father, a naturalized US citizen, and had been in the country seven years at the time of the 9-11 disaster. He was the archetype of the “good” immigrant who really believed that the USA represents freedom. He had left his native Algeria to escape violence and repression, which was endemic there in the 1990s, and doubly targeted at members of his own people, the Berber ethnic minority.

News from home never failed to confirm the wisdom of his decision to leave. In May 1997, his young sister-in-law was killed when a bomb exploded at her high school in Algiers. But some of the salient incidents which prompted Aym to leave his homeland would take on an ironic significance as he was “profiled” as a potential terrorist by the FBI for the most unassuming acts after 9-11.

The first came in 1986, when he was vacationing with a friend at the Mediterranean port of Bejaia. An avid photographer, he began taking pictures of the port below from a scenic vista point. This activity came to the attention of a police officer. Aym was detained at the local police station, interrogated about his purposes in photographing the harbor, and given a verbal drumming about the threat of espionage and subversion from the imperialist powers. This degree of paranoia over something as innocent as photography helped inform his decision to leave the country years later.

Another concerned the food shortages which were chronic, despite the oil boom of the 1980s. After waiting in a long line for hours to triumphantly return home with ten pounds of garbanzo beans and four pounds of butter, he began to realize how his standards for material security had eroded.

Early one morning in October 2002, Aym, now living happily in Illinois, was driving along Route 66 with his camera, his eye drawn by images that could make for interesting shots, unaware of how his comfortable world was about to change. First he stops to shoot dew-glistening spider webs interlacing between corn stalks in a farmer’s field. Then—fatefully—he notices a pair of railroad tracks, “their flat surfaces reflecting sunlight and shining like two silver lines drawn into the horizon.” His interest is purely aesthetic, not at all technical: “The scene of converging rail tracks and obsolete telephone poles was a harmonious display of increasing distance and decreasing height and span; a natural 3-D visual agreement.” He again stops the car and starts clicking.

As at the port at Bejaia 15 years earlier, this activity draws the attention of the local constabulary. A state trooper pulls up, questions him about what he is doing and where he is from, asks for ID, runs a check. Aym is finally allowed to go. Weeks later, the FBI issues an alert warning of terrorist attacks on Amtrak.

In January 2003, Aym receives a call at his home from the FBI. They request an interview to discuss his “love of trains.” (The assumption seems to be he is either a terrorist or a train-spotting geek.) “I don’t love trains,” he answers. He is aware he can refuse the interview, but also aware that this would only invite an FBI visit at his workplace, which would be a public embarrassment and could even jeopardize his job. He realizes his official rights are somewhat irrelevant. He agrees to the interview.

“Even if the FBI suspects me of being a terrorist, it is better to be in America than Algeria,” he jokes to his worried wife. “Here, at least I can buy garbanzo beans at any time of the day and night.”

In the following days, as he frets over his impending interview, contacts the ACLU and is referred to a lawyer, he contemplates how freedom is diminishing in both his native and adoptive countries—and for related reasons. In the ’90s, as the Algerian regime turned post-socialist and came to be dominated by a “mafia” of corrupt generals, the new populist mantle was assumed by the Islamic fundamentalists. Their electoral victory in 1992 only prompted the regime to annul the elections and declare military rule—which in turn prompted the Islamists to take up arms, precipitating nearly ten years of civil war in which 200,000 Algerians lost their lives. And neither side—the military mafia or the Islamist guerillas—saw the Berbers as anything other than a dangerous threat to national unity.

The resurgence of a Berber movement for human and cultural rights came, unfortunately, just as 9-11 was about to transform the political landscape for the worse. On June 14, 2001, over 1 million Berbers marched in Algiers to protest the killing of an unarmed youth by the police in Kabylia, the Berber region. Ten were killed as police attacked the protesters. The White House said nothing. On July 12, 2001, Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was at the White House for an official visit; a small group of Berber protesters stood outside with a banner reading “ALGERIAN PRESIDENT AND GENERALS TO THE HAGUE.” A few weeks later, Algeria awarded a $700 million contract to Halliburton subsidiary KBR to help modernize the country’s oil industry. After 9-11, the US would step up arms sales and military-intelligence cooperation with the Algerian regime, and human and minority rights in Algeria would become more of an inconvenience than ever for Algiers and Washington alike.

So Aym’s people face persecution in his homeland precisely because they are not Arab, Algeria’s dominant ethnicity. And the Islamists and government are seen as equal threats to Berber freedom and identity. Yet in Illinois, he is profiled as an Arab/Islamic terrorist.

Aym’s interview with the FBI takes place at a federal building in a Bloomington suburb named (more irony) Normal. Once ensconced in the office of the interrogating agent, he offers to do a Google search of his own name, which would turn up freelance work confirming that he is, in fact, a photographer. The agent declines, instead asking a barrage of banal questions: “Do you know anyone, associates or friends, who may be working for any terrorist government or terrorist organization?” “Are you a terrorist or linked to a terrorist organization?”

Writes Aym: “I had a feeling of deja vu: I saw the Algerian policeman at the police station in 1986. The agent’s blank face and small but muscular body made him an extension of the repressive system. How interesting to see that repression and love of power easily cross cultural, national, and religious boundaries!”

After answering a requisite “no” to the agent’s questions, he is free to leave—until, in one final flourish of paranoid sleuthwork, the agent notices the decal on Aym’s notepad and demands he explain it. It reads “UBL,” for Ultimate Band List, a music e-store. The agent accepts this explanation. Aym is confused until his lawyer, who was allowed to be present for the interview, says to the agent, “I see that you have the picture of UBL here.” He indicates a WANTED poster for Usama bin Laden—using the FBI’s unorthodox spelling of the first name.

“I was stunned when I realized how naive I was,” Aym writes. “Both my lawyer and the agent had made the link between my UBL decal and Usama Bin Laden. My lawyer used the initials UBL as if he purposely wanted to expose my naivete to me.”

The interview had lasted an hour, but of course felt like an eternity. Upon leaving, Aym considers “heading north to get my kicks on Route 66 one more time. Instead, I drove home.”

The story is told in a brief 65 pages, and does often come across as slightly naive. But a lot of meaning is packed into this slim volume—about lost innocence, about the paradoxes of identity, and about the diminishing prospects for human freedom in both the United States of America and on planet Earth generally in the long aftermath of September 11.

RESOURCES

Zighen Aym’s homepage
http://www.geocities.com/zighenaym

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Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, July 10, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution

http://WW4Report.com

Continue ReadingPARANOIA ON ROUTE 66 

Hope and Horror in Sierra Leone

HOW DE BODY?
One Man’s Terrifying Journey Through an African War
by Teun Voeten
St. Martins Press, 2002

by Bill Weinberg

Belgium-based Dutch photojournalist Teun Voeten was already a veteran of the bloodbaths in Bosnia, Rwanda, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Colombia when he arrived in the West African nation of Sierra Leone in February 1998. A particularly brutal guerilla army, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), had been terrorizing Sierra Leone since 1991, and Voeten was there to photograph demobilized child soldiers who had been abducted and forced to fight for the rebels. At first, he is almost cynical about the whole ghastly affair, as if jaded to the point of complacency—the cliché of the hardbitten war reporter.

But shortly after his arrival, a ceasefire ended as the country was invaded by a multi-national intervention force led by Nigeria. RUF and government troops alike went on a rampage of looting and senseless killing, plundering what they could before Nigerian forces seized the country. As a European journalist, Voeten was an obvious target. He was forced to flee into the bush before he finally escaped across the border to Guinea weeks later. Voeten quickly loses his swagger after a few brushes with death. He was humbled by the selflessness of locals who put their lives on the line to help him survive, hiding him from the rebels, feeding and housing him. Voeten certainly wouldn’t have made it without the bravery and savvy of his colleague, local BBC correspondent Eddie Smith. When Voeten was safely back home in Brussels, Smith would be killed in a rebel ambush.

Reckoning with the experience sent Voeten back to Sierra Leone a year later—partly to deliver funds to a friend’s school project. It also drove him to dissect and understand the conflict, and how it has frayed Sierra Leone’s social fabric. “How de body?” is the common greeting in Krio, Sierra Leone’s creole tongue—which takes on a hideous irony in light of the rebels’ habit of ritual amputation of their victims. “Jamba” (marijuana) didn’t seem to mellow out these killers, who were also hootched up on amphetamines, heroin and worse stuff—the better to brainwash press-ganged pre-adolescents. As numerous war victims bitterly complained to Voeten, the Sierra Leone violence was even worse than that of Bosnia and Kosovo—yet the world paid little attention.

For all his vivid depictions of on-the-ground brutality, Voeten doesn’t overlook the international context for a near-forgotten war in a paradoxically impoverished but resource-rich part of Africa. His investigations also took him back to Belgium, where he interviewed sleazy Antwerp diamond merchants who fund the rebels and launder their “conflict diamonds.” He documents how the British, meanwhile, snuck around an official embargo to sell arms to the government forces, who were hardly less brutal than the rebels. As in so many countries in Africa and the global south, Sierra Leone’s people were caught between hostile forces backed by foreign powers for their own ends.

How de Body?,
illustrated with Voeten’s own photos, is a testament to the heroism of ordinary people around the world who struggle to keep alive a sense of simple humanity in wars that grind on outside the global media spotlight—portrayed only as decontextualized atrocity pornography, if at all. Voeten’s journeys through Sierra Leone’s nightmares shed light where too many other journalists have only seen hearts of darkness.

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See Teun Voeten’s special WW3 REPORT photo essay IMAGES OF OCCUPIED BAGHDAD: ww3report.com/iraqphotoessay/

Continue ReadingHope and Horror in Sierra Leone 

SAVING BASRA’S BOOKS FROM THE WRECKAGE OF WAR

A children’s story some adults could stand to read

by Padraic O’Neil

THE LIBRARIAN OF BASRA
A True Story from Iraq
Written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter
Harcourt Books, 2005

With bold, vibrant colors framing dramatic images, and in language direct and unadorned, Jeanette Winter tells the astonishing tale of Alia Muhammad Baker. As the chief librarian of Basra’s central library, she salvaged 30,000 books from the wreckage of war.

According to New York Times journalist Shalia K. Dewan, whose work was the inspiration for this welcome children’s book, "Alia Muhammad Baker’s house is full of books. There are books in stacks, books in the cupboards, books bundled in the flour sacks like lumpy aid rations. Books fill an old refrigerator. Pull aside a window curtain, and there is no view, just more books." Books on the history of Iraq’s civilizations, on Islam and literature, on "the finer points of Arabic grammar and the art of telling time."

The Librarian of Basra begins with a quote from Alia: "In the Koran, the first thing God said to Muhammad was ‘Read.’" With this as an article of faith, Alia recounts how her library was a meeting place for the discussion of ideas both temporal and spiritual. The atmosphere changed with the threat of invasion, prompting the discussion of more immediate questions: "Will planes with bombs fill the sky? Will our families survive? What can we do?"

Alia worried that the library will be destroyed. She begs a local bureaucrat for permission to move the books; he refuses. Alia, however, will not be deterred. She begins to smuggle books out of the library. As "the whispers of war grow louder," the government occupies the building and an anti-aircraft gun is placed on the roof. Shalia Dewan in her July 27, 2003 article for the Times states that "Ms. Baker and others said that this was a calculated plan by the government, which assumed that the library would be spared bombing, or if not, the bombing would generate ill will against the allied forces."

As the invasion became inevitable, and Basra was immersed in fear, Alia despaired of being able to save the books. She may have recalled how in the 13th century the Mongols burned the magnificent libraries of Baghdad. Iraqi legend has it that so many books were flung into the Tigris, the river ran blue from their ink.

Next, the book draws the reader into the chaos and devastation of total war. Aerial bombing sets much of the city of over one million ablaze. Tanks troll the streets, and the ensuing destruction seems random. Why is this happening? Silhouettes of terrified civilians flee the downpour of bombs from a swarm of planes and the crackle and hiss of gunfire, desperate for shelter that does not exist.

As I read this part of the book with my five-year-old daughter, Shiori, we paused to discuss why militaries are formed and whose interests they serve. The book illustrates some of the reasons why we took to the streets, as a family, to protest the aggressive violence of the U.S. government. While a children’s book about war is challenging and some of the images overwhelm, the overall message is one of abiding hope. I am also happy to share with my daughter a book whose protagonist is a strong, intelligent woman, who takes direct action.

Soon the library is abandoned. Alia calls to her neighbor, Anis Muhammad, who owns a restaurant, for help. Alia, Anis and other neighbors and relatives spirited the books out of the library and over a wall into Anis’ restaurant. There they stayed hidden as the British forces occupied Basra. Nine days after the books were moved, the library burned to the ground.

In the final section, Alia hires a truck to move all the books, many of them hundreds of years old, to her house and the houses of friends. Alia waited and dreamt of peace. She waited and dreamt of a new library.

In an interview with Michele Norris on National Public Radio, Jeanette Winter quoted Alia speaking about her motivation: "I spent my life taking care of books and those masterpieces of great authors and writers as if they were my own children. I treasure every name, every word of them. I gave books my whole attention, my whole respect. I always encourage others to borrow books, stories, novels, because I know deeply inside what a great change the reader will have in mind, in conduct and in dealing with life. All those who destroyed and ruined the library were ignorant and are not of our good people. Basra is well-known for its goodness, kindness, its high concern of old and modern history and its great understanding of what books mean for humanity."

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This review originally appeared in the March-April 2005 issue of The Catholic Worker, 36 East 1st St., New York, NY 10003

RESOURCES:

News story on The Librarian of Basra from Al Mendhar: New Iraq Chronicles
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Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, April 10, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution

http://WW4Report.com

Continue ReadingSAVING BASRA’S BOOKS FROM THE WRECKAGE OF WAR